Group Mentality

We stand in a row, our left hands resting on the wooden bar. One girl is wearing a ballet leotard and shoes, but the rest of us–mostly women, mostly in their 20s and 30s–look awkward and clumsy in our basketball shorts and yoga pants. I am at the end, my back to the rest of the class, and there’s only one woman to the right of me to use as a point of reference. She is much taller human than me; her hips are at my chest.

I haven’t been on a sports team since Sophomore year of high school, when I was running around with the plaid skirt hacking at a ball with a wooden stick. I rarely go to concerts. I like the Red Sox, but not having to sit next to the fans. Large groups of people make me nervous, and I’m not a good candidate for a cult. Exercise classes are the only sort of group mentality I can get behind.

Lift one leg up, another one down, the teacher says. She is pacing the room, her voice peppy. She wears exercise clothes but a full face of makeup. I have not yet fallen in love with her yet, but I will by the end of class. My friend Bethany and I have discussed this before–there’s a certain aura to exercise instructors, a seductive power in their ability to make an entire room of people sweat.

I am particularly bad at following kinetic instructions, so it is belittling in a good way to always be one of the worst students in the room.

Up, down. Side, side. Right. Left. That’s it.

I pivot my hips left and then right, right and then left, lost in my movements. I look towards the girl next to me to see if I’m doing it right.

“I don’t even know,” she laughs, looking back at the mirror to try to get a glimpse of the teacher in the reflection.

I lift my hands off the bar and shrug. “Me neither.”

Advertisements

Marriage

Dre, who is at least three heads taller than Dor, grabs her from behind and hug her against my farmhouse kitchen sink.

“How’s it feel to be married?” I ask. I haven’t seen them since they signed the Katuba.

“Exactly the same,” they say, in unison. “The only difference is that question.”

Advice

Leila, one of my oldest friends, is sitting on my bed. Because she was a grade behind me in school, I feel it’s only right give her far-reaching advice based on the mistakes I’ve already made the year prior.

She is wearing my bathrobe and a pair fuzzy purple socks. This is how I always think of her–wrapped in layers, drinking something warm, preparing for the hibernation months.

Once, when I was running late to meet her at my house and walked her through the steps of breaking inside my front door, I came home to find she had put the tea kettle on for us both, found a pair of slippers to wear, and watered all my plants.

“Don’t even think about the future right now,” I say, “just focus on working on you.”

Leila nods.

“You’re right,” she says, taking a sip of tea. “You’re so right.”

“But who knows. A year from now, I might contradict myself.”

Puppy Breath

I try list them all from the backseat: Jackson, Boogie, Kiwi, Molly, Nelly, Felix, and Mo. I can’t remember if the hamster had a name, or the fighting fish my twin poisoned and flushed down the toilet. But I can tell from the way that Peter asked me the question, “Have you ever had any pets?” that my answer was simply a precursor to his own.

“What about you?” I ask. I had hoped to use the Uber ride to grade papers.

Peter opens up the vanity mirror in the front seat and pulls out a photograph, worn at the edges, of a white dog panting in the grass. With his eyes still on the highway, he extends his arm behind him to give me a better look of the photo, but far enough away that I can’t reach touch it.

“Meet Bentley,” he says. He has the watered down accent of a Brit who has lived in the U.S. for a long time.  He wears a black suit jacket and old jeans. Something about this partial attempt at professionalism–and the way he had insisted on opening the door of his black town car when he picked me up–makes my stomach hurt for him and the economy.

“A West Highland White terrier. I called him a West Highland White Terrorist!” he says. He repeats the joke twice, in case I don’t get it.

We are nearing my exit. I have read the first sentence of my students’ paper three times.

“He was willful. Would test you all the time. He stared at me, with his upper lip slightly lifted so you could see his tooth popping out. I said Bentley, there must be some food under your lip because you look like you’re about to bite me. I just wish I had let him bite me, just once. He’d have been happy in doggy heaven.”

He tells me Bentley lived to be fifteen, and died 10 years ago, two years after his wife Susan. I nod in acknowledgement, but realize he can’t see me.

“That’s so sweet,” I say.

“There’s nothing like the love of a dog. After Susan passed away I was dating a few different people. You know, nothing serious. My friends asked me if I was ever going to settle down again. Well, I said if I could find a women with sweet puppy breath and would look at me with cocker spaniel eyes, I would marry her in a second.”

Flu Season

“Do I have your file?” she says, as a greeting.

She walks into her office without waiting for my answer.

“Oh. It’s on my desk,” she says. I get up from the waiting area and linger by her doorway. She gives me a perfunctory nod, motioning for me to sit down.

“It’s nice to meet you!” I say, reaching out my hand. I am prone to girlish sweetness whenever I meet a female bureaucrat. I want to ask her about the pictures of the children framed on her desk. I want to see if she is capable of smiling.

“Mhm” she says, opening up a manila file, my life in a stack of papers. “Mhm.” She looks up and sees my hands still out.

“I don’t shake hands,” she says. “I can’t afford to get sick.”

The Pretty One

“Which one’s Maya again?” my mother asks. We’re at a vegan restaurant she loves, which always gives me gas.

“You know Maya. You’ve met her many times. She’s one of my closest friends.”

“Are you sure?” she says.

She splits the last beet potato pancake in two, putting half on my plate.

“She’s Indian…She lives in Boston…We met in college…” I continue. I am trying hard to avoid repeating the moniker my family has given Maya, even though I know it would be more expedient.

“The pretty one, you mean?”  my mom asks.

There it is.

“I think all my friends are beautiful,” I snap.

“Yes, yes, you have attractive friends. But she’s especially pretty. Those eyes–”

Both my sister and my brother have told me independently (and without prompting) that, out of all my friends, Maya is the one they would date. My sister is not even gay.

“Okay fine, ‘the exotic one.’ Is that better?”

“No, nope, definitely not.”

“Really? Is that bad to say? Well what am I supposed to call her!? It’s confusing. There’s Mia And then there’s Maya. And there’s that other Maya. You have so many friends named Maya.”

“There are no other Mayas in my life.”

“But what about–”

“No”

“Yes, you have–”

“No-”

“Will you stop!” my mother says, her voice rising. “You’re being so dismissive.”

“Sorry. Go on.” I take a last bite of the beet pancake.

“What about your friend, you know, her boyfriend was very handsome, an educator, and black–”

“Erin.”

“Are you sure?”

The Professor

“I hope you are all aware you’ll need at least a B minus in order to pass this class,” my professor says. “Anything lower, and you’re out of here.”

At 84 year-old, he is a writer with little commercial success, who speaks proudly of the times he has made students cry. He told me he considered becoming an alcoholic after reading the first paragraph of my first story.

He likes to put us in categories. F is the disappointment. C is the Asian. J is the Chekhov of Africa. D is the Russian who needs to work on his English. K is the Liberal Yalie. And, for reasons that I don’t entirely understand, I’m the “cool one,” prone to mawkish sentimentality in my writing.

Our stories follow a similar categorization. We’ve either written a work of Literature destined for the New Yorker, or unreadable dung which we should throw in the trash.

“Would you let us know if we’re at risk of not passing?” I ask.

Though grades don’t mean much in an MFA program, I still have a vestigial fear of getting anything lower than an A.

“Maybe if there was a transaction involved…” he says to me, smirking.

I am not sure if I heard correctly, but K’s white face confirms it. F squirms in his chair. J looks at his feet. The last story we workshopped was about a boy who gets on his knees to pay rent.