(after Ellen Bass, “What Did I Love”) After lights dimmed and the slide projector flashed the underwater archaeology of ancient Greece and Crete, murky Minoan masks of gold or bejeweled swords from shipwrecks off the coast of Spain, though I fought it, I dozed until the classroom lights came back on. Other times, when the prof had earnest eyebrows or hands that fussed, a cigarette burning to a nub while he talked, ashes falling, I drew it all in my spiral-bound notebooks instead of taking notes. I love how my college notebooks might as well be sketchbooks, Shakespeare prof, poet, fiction writer, especially education profs who droned on about objectives and outcomes, and sometimes other students, who maybe nodded off with their heads resting on their wrists, who didn’t glimpse me staring, sketching them. That’s why I forgive every student who sleeps during class, and I love the ones who doodle or draw, who possibly never catch any of the concepts I chalk onto blackboards, the diagrams of rising action, climax, denouement, resolution, and after all, these really aren’t graphs of the stories I assign, it’s my life, tension rising as papers are due back, miles of red ink needing to be spilled, or faculty break room where dramas are never resolved, union negotiations, or teaching evaluations -- each episode a little arc rising or falling action, climax, anti-climax. And when I look out over the classroom, to check whether the wisdom I dispense has been sinking in, my eyes are most often caught by the doodlers, the ones who likely begin by placing that graph on their paper, then become swept into embellishment, dots, loops, swirls, lines, or the ones who hide behind the guise of taking notes, but are shading, glancing, shading, drawing me. Those students, the glow bright above their bowed heads. I love them the most.
Wind blows down the avenue, summer in Queens, everyone’s windows open and you can catch the Yankee game from every taxi or idling car at a traffic light, truck exhaust mixes with asphalt, diesel from buses, the smell says pizza from noon to midnight, but for some reason, in front of my building something a little rank like soaked gym socks, the spent flowers from a mimosa, which inconveniently stick onto every parked car’s hood, mansard roof, or windshield wipers. Leggy tree, straining toward the sun between buildings, in a small square of dirt cut out of the concrete sidewalk, marked by dogs, backed into by inept parkers, scrawny limbs and barkless naked branches. Back in July, festooned by pink and white flowers like little ruffled parasols in a cocktail, it was as out of place as a movie set prop, a neon beach umbrella without a beach in sight. Oh, mimosa. If I ever am so lucky to have a tree, I used to think, way before I ever had a tree or drank a mimosa, I would never have one as skanky as a slit-thigh prom dress, promising way too much, with touch-me-not leaves that clamp together when brushed or patted. Not me. In those days, everything was already impossibly clamped to everything else. I had no idea who I wanted to be, but I know what it felt like, moment by moment, to be surrounded by everything galling. Maybe some other girl looked out over the fire escape while waiting for a GTO to double park with its flashers on, radio blasting “Can’t take my eyes off you,” maybe someone (say my mom) on a neighborhood beautification committee would plant a mimosa and hope the block, for one month in summer, would look like a fairy tale. But now it’s almost September. School’s back in session. The pennant race is heating up. Across the street at Luigi’s, Luigi is dripping sweat and his transom fan blows hot cheese and tomato sauce out onto the block. Poor tree, hungry for light, hungry for a tropical breeze, drips her faded droopy flowers onto every hubcap and into every storm drain. She can’t wait to get away, but she’s a little too desperate to show it.
Bonnie Proudfoot is a recipient of a Fellowship for the Arts in Creative Writing from the West Virginia Department of Culture and History, and has had fiction and poetry published in the Gettysburg Review, Kestrel, Sheila-Na-Gig, Pine Mountain Sand and Gravel, and other journals. Her first novel, Goshen Road, was published by Swallow Press in January of 2020, and was selected by the Women’s National Book Association for one of its Great Group Reads for 2020. The novel was also long-listed for the 2021 PEN/ Hemingway award for debut fiction. She currently resides in Athens, Ohio.