This is a story I don’t particularly want to post, but I’m going to do it anyway. Like my last publication story, it takes place during my college years. Also like that last one, it will probably make more sense to you if you read the published piece first. But unlike my last publication story, you also need to understand a lot of what I was going through at the time to understand how this one wound up published.
I could start the story off at many different points, but I’ve decided on a Thursday night in springtime of my senior year. I’d taken the little gray Honda Accord my parents were loaning me to drive to and from my downtown internship and driven it into previously uncharted territory. With my flip phone in my pocket and the chunky square of the GPS I’d gotten for Christmas sitting in my lap, I followed the spoken directions turn by turn.
The streets of Milwaukee were crowded. A knot formed in my stomach as I sped past houses and storefronts and buildings whose purpose I couldn’t fathom, all without the time to take a proper look. A confusion of visual signals half processed piled up in my brain as I forced myself to check my mirrors and read the street signs and watch out for pedestrians emerging from locations unexpected.
I took a few wrong turns because I always do, turning too early because I misinterpreted the GPS and panicked, missing a turn I should have taken because I couldn’t get in the proper lane with traffic in the way. I was relieved to pull into the church parking lot on time and even more relieved to see familiar faces waiting inside.
I hadn’t known how many from campus would be there, but of course the girl who had announced it at last Sunday’s Mass was one of them, and I recognized some others also. I grabbed a program and claimed an open spot in one of the pews they’d chosen.
I’d been told there would be speakers and praise and worship and Eucharistic Adoration. I’d told myself this would be a good thing to do during Lent, a good replacement for the campus ministry retreat that hadn’t happened that year.
I knelt for prayer, and there was one thing at the top of my mind. The famous Senior Reading was approaching for the students of Writing Senior Seminar, when all of us would stand before a crowd of students and professors, family and friends, and read aloud from something we had written. I had already invited my parents. I hadn’t finalized the piece that I would read.
Something from The Nature of Magic, I’d thought. This was my novel in progress, of which I had submitted more than one chapter for workshop. My classmates seemed to like it. One of them had even gone so far to say that if it never became published, she would cry.
The only question was which part to read. Or at least it had been. As I knelt there, I had another memory float back to my mind. Earlier that same day, I’d stayed after class to ask a question. The last piece I’d submitted for workshop hadn’t been a chapter from my novel at all but a nonfiction piece entitled Blooms. As always, my classmates and professor had given me their annotated copies, filled with suggestions for editing, but my professor’s had been missing the traditional endnote that was meant to summarize his thoughts about the piece. Instead, he’d written at the bottom a sort of IOU.
I’d had multiple classes with him, and this was something that had never happened before. His note had made it seem he needed a bit more time, although it didn’t give me the impression that he was behind on his work in general. It seemed to be this piece in particular he needed to consider longer.
I stayed behind to ask about that, but he said it wasn’t ready yet. I accepted this and would have left, but he asked me what I planned to do with the piece. Was it going to be my choice for the reading?
“No,” I said firmly. “I’m going to be reading something from The Nature of Magic.”
“Something for the portfolio?”
Again, I said no. I didn’t want that piece appearing among others that were apparently going to be available somewhere in the university library perhaps forever.
He suggested that I shouldn’t be so emphatic about that.
I didn’t budge an inch. I hadn’t wanted to bring it to workshop in the first place. I hadn’t written it for class. I’d written it for myself. Draft after draft, I’d written to exorcise the memories from my head, to put them into order someplace definite so that I could forget. But one day I’d been praying. And there I was, printing off copies in the basement computer lab and pulling my trusty stapler out of my messenger bag to make a packet for each person who would need to read it.
And there I was, sitting at a rounded table as they pulled out their annotated copies and prepared to give their thoughts. There I was, staring down at a sheet of looseleaf, mouth closed and poker face applied, preparing to take notes. The rules of workshop, as I’d known since my freshman year, were that the author never interrupted or did anything that might derail the conversation. I’d been in class with a guy who nodded enthusiastically at every point that he agreed with or wanted to indicate as something correct, and I’d never forgotten how the professor put a stop to it.
It was interesting, then, to hear one of my classmates criticize “the main character”.
He’d already given the piece a compliment, of course. One compliment apiece was customary to begin. It opened up the floor for other points to be made after, so it wasn’t surprising that he had such thoughts, but I hadn’t considered that the piece would be assumed to be fictional and the main character able to receive a personality change.
“She’s just too lowly,” he said, speaking the last word slowly, as if it wasn’t quite the one he was looking for.
He’d just gotten started, and he was clearly going somewhere, but another classmate interrupted with a note of stress in her voice. “I think this is nonfiction. Her name is in it.”
She flipped her copy to page two, pointing at the evidence.
The professor asked me to confirm. I did.
The first classmate was embarrassed and apologetic, clearly uncomfortable, but I didn’t hold it against him. We’d always been on friendly terms. I did usually write fiction. It was an honest mistake, and he was entitled to his opinion. It might even have been true.
But of course I couldn’t change the past. I couldn’t change the piece. The point was dropped, and class went on. No feelings were hurt.
That classroom was a safe zone. I hadn’t wanted to share the piece at all, but I had been able to live with it, knowing it was just that group.
But as I knelt inside that unfamiliar church, watching a priest place the monstrance on the altar, I began to suspect my call was not complete. The knot inside my stomach wound and unwound as I gazed upon the Host, protected behind glass and encircled with points of gold like sunbeams.
I prayed. I sang. I felt the presence.
When the event was over, at least for the night, I reentered the world of the secular. I knew the thoughts that I’d been having, but now doubts crept in. It wasn’t as if I heard a voice inside my head. How certain could I really be? Would it even be a good idea to read Blooms? What if my classmates had all been too embarrassed or afraid to tell me what they really thought? If these thoughts were just my own, who was I to think I’d written something worthwhile in some special way instead of an embarrassment?
I was supposed to finalize my choice for the reading by midnight on Friday. It wasn’t like me to be late on an assignment. In fact, in grade school I’d been trained to expect a 0% grade and a confession to my parents every time. I’d nearly failed sixth or seventh grade math because of one forgotten deadline, despite the fact that I tested so well I was able to take accelerated Algebra with high schoolers in eighth grade. I continued to have nightmares years after completing school.
I wanted, on a deep level, to send an email to my professor naming the first chapter of The Nature of Magic. Instead, I replied to an email I’d gotten from a friend.
He and I and a third friend (I’ll call him Phil) typically got together to play D & D on Saturdays. This week, he wanted to reschedule to Sunday.
He knew that I had Mass at 8 pm, but he’d always been perfectly supportive of it. I had no concerns about rescheduling and told him so. But I also included a request. To paraphrase:
There’s this piece I’m considering for the Senior Reading, but I can’t tell if it’s any good. I’m just too close to it. But I trust your judgment and I trust you to be honest with me. Will you read it and tell me if you think it’s a good choice? No pressure, though. I totally, one thousand percent get it if you don’t want to read it for any reason under the sun.
I checked my email far too often Saturday. But I got no reply before the time arrived to drive back for part two of the religious experience. More speakers, more praise and worship, but this time included an option for Reconciliation. I took it. I walked out that time feeling I should have trusted my judgment last time.
I informed my professor that I would be reading Blooms. But I also gratefully accepted my friend’s offer to turn the first part of our D & D session into a miniature workshop just for me.
It turned out the church had Eucharistic Adoration with praise and worship once a week. I went back again and again, until the streets began to look familiar and I’d memorized a landmark near each turn.
Even so, it wracked my nerves to go alone. I’d pull into the parking lot afraid that I’d mixed up the date and time, walk in the door afraid it had been cancelled, and select a pew worrying that those around me were all here for some different reason.
But there was comfort once it started. The songs changed from week to week, or at least the order did, but I’d known most of them to start with, and “Tantum Ergo Sacramentum” was now nearly memorized. I knelt as long as I could stand to during Adoration, and when the priest transitioned into daily Mass, I stood with knees protesting.
The night before the reading, my stomach was in knots again. I doubled down on prayers, asking for support, making promises to give it my all. I didn’t know why I was being asked to do this, if I was being asked to do this, but I decided that it didn’t matter if I knew. Even if I died with all the evidence suggesting it had been a total waste, if it benefitted someone in a way beyond my understanding, it was worth it. I felt myself relaxing into a sense of purpose.
But sometime before the closing hymn, I developed a new problem. Vomit rose in the back of my throat. I swallowed and swallowed and swallowed, trying to keep it down. I stayed sitting when I was meant to stand, keeping my mouth closed, hoping.
I didn’t know where the bathroom was here. Didn’t know if I should go to one. I kicked myself for not realizing the issue before I took Communion, wished I had spent more time studying the Catechism.
I don’t know what I should have done, but I do know what I did. I stood up, went outside, and couldn’t make it farther than a patch of dirt with a bare-branched bush.
Hot shame propelled me to the car. The church had not been crowded, most people were already gone because I’d sat trying to gain control. But I wanted to get away from anyone who had seen, to leave before anyone else came and saw. I didn’t think I was in an ideal state to drive, but I didn’t know if I’d get worse. I didn’t want to be stranded there. I wanted to go back to my dorm room.
I drove as carefully as I could manage, trying not to hate myself so much I couldn’t pay attention. The residence hall parking lot, when I finally circled around it, was full. One of the other lots was closed that night, and the residence hall parking lot was not reserved for residents. There were, however, a number of parking lots specifically forbidden to residents. I circled around at five miles per hour, reading signs and worrying about penalties all the way out to the CFA (Communication and Fine Arts) building.
I tried not to be angry with whoever had taken the spot I’d vacated earlier. They didn’t know who they were taking it from or what that person’s situation would be. For all I knew, there was an even better reason that they needed it.
I walked across one parking lot, then the adjoining one. I scanned my ID to open the door to the wing that held science and nursing classrooms. The halls were empty, though some classrooms might have been occupied. I walked quietly, down one hall and then another, hoping I wouldn’t run into anyone, hoping I could keep it together until I got to the adjoining residence hall.
Food poisoning, I thought. I’d heard of more than one outbreak among students who’d eaten a particular dish from the campus dining hall. I ate there every meal, and although I was careful, it made sense that I would fall victim eventually. That was the price to pay for not wanting to spend extra money.
I reached my dorm room without incident, made use of the sink inside, and promptly restricted my food and water intake. I skipped my first class the next day. I called in sick to my internship. I told myself the Math and Computer Science club would live without me. But I went to Writing Senior Seminar, and I told them I would be at the reading unless my stomach rebelled.
It still did not feel normal when the time came, but I was confident that as long as I ate nothing I would not have an accident. I cleaned myself up, got dressed, and walked to the auditorium.
I carried with me a basket of assorted flowers. We’d talked in class about having some kind of decorations, and wouldn’t you know it? I happened to have had some delivered very recently.
One of my classmates smiled and pointed as I approached. “Blooms!”
I smiled back at the obvious joke. “Yeah. They’re from the place I’m going to work for.”
I didn’t go into further detail. Most of my classmates were Writing majors or English and Writing majors. They weren’t doubling in Computer Science like me, and many of them didn’t know what they were doing after graduation. The subject had come up during class, so they knew I had a job lined up for a “cool” company. It wasn’t a mystery why I’d received a gift simply for being a new hire.
I might have tried to downplay it, but the fact that it was flowers—and not from a love interest—might make them feel sorry for me. Especially given my piece. Was it enough to cancel jealousy? Perhaps.
I set the flowers down. My parents walked in through the other entrance. I stopped to greet them, shared an update on my condition, and walked inside to join my classmates and professor.
I didn’t want to watch people coming in, but also I did. I’d gone back and forth on whether to extend a particular invitation. Phil had told me he was going through a depressive episode, though. I’d sent an email wishing him well, not bringing up the reading to either of them. They knew that it was happening, though, and the date was advertised enough on campus. I worried and I hoped, not certain which was winning.
When they walked in, I did a classic look-away, almost like an involuntary flinch. It hid my reaction. It made my reaction less intense. If I wasn’t seeing him, it couldn’t rise to full intensity.
I thought they would conclude I hadn’t seen them. It seemed I had been right when he called out my name and waved. I looked up, forced on a smile, and felt it growing huge as I waved back. My emotions couldn’t just be simple.
I sat down, reassuring myself that I was not scheduled to read until after the intermission. I listened, relaxed, and found to my surprise that my stomach had settled enough for me to eat a tiny snack food with a cup of water during intermission.
I stuck close to my parents, although I wasn’t in conversation with them when he and Phil approached. He was moving slowly, complaining about feeling tired. I sympathized, and inwardly I was amazed that he had come at all.
It seemed that he was starting to come out of it because he told me he’d been talking to Phil. The subject of the reading had come up, one of them pointing out it was that night. There’d been talk about skipping out until they had remembered I was in it.
I was both flattered and sorry for any of my classmates who had overheard that.
He asked when I was reading.
“Second to last,” I said, and explained the system we had used for assigning places.
“You couldn’t have rolled a twenty?” he asked, and I decided he was joking. He must have been feeling miserable, but he was trying.
He asked me why I wasn’t eating and suggested an alternative to food poisoning: anxiety.
“No,” I said. “I’m starting to feel better, and I haven’t read yet. It must have been food poisoning.”
Back inside the auditorium, readings continued until my time arrived. The slideshow prepared by one of my classmates clicked forward, showing the title of my piece with a photo of a rose that she had chosen. I hadn’t known exactly what the image was going to be, but I’d expected something similar. I appreciated her ability to pick out a photo of high quality that also set the proper tone. Something I would have struggled with.
The student who had just finished reading stayed at the podium to announce my piece. Interestingly enough, it was the same classmate who had begun to criticize my “main character”, but he had only complimentary things to say that night. I didn’t doubt that they were heartfelt either, but none of them stuck inside my mind. My brain was apparently incapable of accepting this.
Of course, I didn’t have much time to worry about being unable to remember what had been said mere seconds before. I needed to perform.
I walked up the steps, placed my papers on the podium, and kept my eyes on them. I knew it was good public speaking practice to look up at the audience, but I knew I couldn’t manage it. Inside my head, I merged my present with familiar memories. The podium became a lectern. The audience was God. I wasn’t reading “A letter from St. Paul” to anyone, but mind and body knew how to perform this. My legs trembled behind their wooden shield. My voice was strong.
The audience laughed at the first paragraph. It lanced through me, a mix of pain and artistic pride. I had them on the hook.
I read the way I’d practiced, feeling the emotions, unveiling the tone behind the words. I knew I should look up when I had finished, but I stared down at my final page as applause sounded. I wondered if I was imagining that it was going on for longer than it had for others. I stole a single glance and saw a man applauding on his feet. He looked vaguely familiar. An administrator? Shocked, I looked back down, focused on the introduction I needed to give, and delivered it in another blur of not-forming-a-memory.
The next thing I remember is reuniting with my parents as we all got up to leave.
“You got a standing ovation,” they told me. “You were the only one who got a standing ovation.”
I questioned whether it had been just the one person. They assured me he had started it but others followed.
They told me that the piece was good. They focused on the part where I’d described our kitchen. The glass pitcher that always sat atop the counter, they said, had actually been passed down to us from Dad’s grandfather. The cookie jars nearby it had been a gift from Aunt Kathy.
They echoed similar thoughts when my professor approached and asked them what they thought.
“It was very good.”
“If felt like walking through our house.”
I was glad they didn’t talk about the emotional substance of the piece. Or ask why I had never told them about this happening. I wondered if my feeling this way was a problem.
I excused myself to get a cup of water. He and Phil found their way to me.
“You didn’t take all of my suggestions,” he said, though not accusingly. I read him as surprised, perhaps intrigued.
“I took them under advisement,” I replied coolly.
I became aware, as I said it, that there were classmates nearby, possibly listening. They didn’t know I’d gotten help from someone outside the class. They didn’t know I was participating in a D & D group. They didn’t know I used vocabulary like “under advisement” when I was talking to him.
I had the sensation of two worlds colliding. Around them, I guarded my language, along with several other facts. With him, I was more open. He’d encouraged me to be so, had specifically said he liked it when I spoke more naturally. I didn’t want to be false to him, but I didn’t want to reveal so much with others listening.
And more than that, he was referring to the fact that he’d interpreted the piece differently than my classmates had. He had spent time warning me that the piece made it seem like I was in the wrong. He was, no doubt, surprised I hadn’t made changes to defend myself. My classmates had read me as the victim. I’d gotten comments in their endnotes reassuring me that the boy whose name I’d changed would be washing my car one day. Which made me worry that they might try to defend me.
I did not want to listen to that argument. Both interpretations were valid. I didn’t want hurt feelings, and I didn’t want them turning to me as the “source of truth”.
I changed the subject, talked a little longer, then went back to my parents and told them I wanted to go back to my dorm room. I still wasn’t feeling great. I thought that I should rest.
Some time later, I received an email from the professor who was running the university’s literary journal that year. The staff had been looking for a piece of creative nonfiction to publish, but they didn’t care for any of the submissions they’d received. None of them were what they were looking for. My piece was. She’d heard me read it, as had many of the students working on the journal, and they wanted to know: would I be willing to submit it to them?
They were fortunate, or perhaps wise, to have asked in a way that gave me time to consider my response.
Years later, I’m still asking questions. I read over the piece and wonder if I presented it as well as I could have. I think that balance is there, the was it real or was it not, but that element seems less important now. The question is why I did what I did. If I did hear voices in the background of the call, the explanation is a simple one. But I wasn’t sure I had, so what convinced me? Was I afraid of falling for a trap? Or afraid of what would happen if it wasn’t one?
If I rewrote the piece, would I include more flashback scenes? Perhaps the time in junior high when I blurted out that I liked a particular boy, meaning the ordinary sense of “like” but predictably being misinterpreted. Is there something worth sharing in the way the “popular” girls approached me at recess to ask if it was true, with mocking smiles at the ready? In the way I turned the tables by pretending to be perfectly serious and unashamed to have a crush on him? Or perhaps in the way he seemed to hate me afterwards?
Perhaps I’d mention getting “the talk” from my grade school principal because our normal science teacher wasn’t Catholic. Me in a roomful of fifth grade girls being told that I’d start being interested in boys soon. And then I’d follow up with public high school gym class, which functioned as a mini-Health class for a portion of our freshman year. Me in a mixed group of students, being told I was at risk of getting pregnant because I wouldn’t be able to resist, so I’d better pay attention to this lecture about birth control.
Perhaps I’d detail what I thought was my first crush, a rather intellectual experience that began when I determined which boys at school seemed to be in my league and then decided which one was my favorite. A close friend started off being so excited that I was interested in boys at last and ended up being confused and frustrated that I was perfectly happy talking about “my crush” with her but never took any of her suggestions about making a move towards him.
Or, if I was very daring, perhaps I would pull back and create a framing device, in which I’m sitting in my college dorm room, typing away again and again because the mystery of this high school phone call seems to hold the secret to unraveling a contemporary conundrum.
But probably not. Not unless I want to turn it into an entire book-sized memoir.
But now, to answer the sorts of questions you might expect to be answered in an epilogue:
I never did go to prom. It came and went my junior year, with me learning the cost of tickets, considering what it would actually be like to go dress shopping, and reasoning that I didn’t even want to stand around looking pretty while feeling uncomfortable for no good reason. Senior year, when friends from AP English suggested that several of us go as a group, I turned them down. When they tried to persuade me, I said I didn’t want to pay money just to spend time with friends. And when they suggested that a guy from the school newspaper might ask me if they dropped a hint, I had a stronger negative reaction than any of us had been expecting.
It wasn’t because there was anything wrong with him, as I hastened to explain. In fact, we got along quite well. I didn’t want to ruin that, not with someone I worked with. So I said. As if an extracurricular is the same as a job. As if being asked that way wasn’t exactly the sort of thing I liked to fantasize about. Until it threatened to become real.
The Nature of Magic, as you might have already guessed, turned into the novel I’m currently working on. I set it aside for several years after graduation before picking it back up. Time will tell whether it becomes published.
I’m still working at the “cool” job. I like to think I’m pretty good at that computer programming stuff. And yes, I do still simplify my language in a self-effacing manner. Thank you for noticing.
As I write this, I regret that I didn’t call my D & D playing friend for a ride back from the church when it might not have been the wisest idea for me to drive. He did live on campus, he did have a car, and I know now that he would have been willing. He’ll probably never read this, but if he did I imagine he might even be upset that I didn’t call him, so here I settle the imaginary conflict with an apology. The same extends to any friends and loved ones who may be understandably upset that I was so reckless. I made a bad decision. I’m sorry.
And finally, I imagine this post might be read by people trying to find out what labels apply to me and what boxes I fit in. If they didn’t make up their minds already from the piece itself. To them, all I can say is that I hope they gained some insight from this. I don’t believe I’m capable of providing any clearer answers. At least at the present moment.