“How will you leave your mark on society and what will it say?” Matthew heard the cynical undertones his voice naturally attached to such a question. The professor stood with confidence at the front of class, waiting for reasons to believe, for valid in-depth dialogue. Nothing.
“Okay, let’s switch gears and assume that we’re not in control, and that free will is an illusion—how does morality fit within our day-to-day choices?” He scanned his class for expressive faces, raised arms, or silent contemplation. A few seemed lost in honest thought, the rest didn’t. Finally, fearlessness;
“Why worry about consequences and ‘leaving your mark’ if nobody’s truly free though?” asked the class-clown-turned-savant only when the conversation fit his interests.
“Yeah, I can’t be held accountable when I’m not even in control of my own body!” said the girl with a four-month belly. The professor stared at the clock on his desk with a nodding head.
“Good point!—One that we’ll resume Monday. Be safe this weekend.” Just like that, he signaled their release. The symphony of ruffling papers and stuffing books filled the room. One by one the students emptied out into the hallway outside Professor Matthew Ellis’s Communications undergrad class.
The middle-aged man sat quietly behind his tidy desk. His chiseled face looked down at a flattened-calendar taking up most of its space, his eyes searching for something, and like always, finding nothing. The month was blank, next month’s as well. He wanted to loosen his tie, to unbutton the top of his shirt, but never did until the last of his class had left. It’d taken him fifteen years to remove his blazer in front of students and faculty, another five to roll up his sleeves. To unbutton was going too far and as petty as he knew it was, it gave him something to look forward to when he’d exit the school completely—a sign of freedom.
His last few students were walking out when a high-pitched voice called out from mid-room.
“Professor Ellis, are you staying behind for a second, or—,” she trailed off intentionally hoping he’d finish her question himself.
“I’ve got a bit,” he replied, still looking down while gathering his files and folders for the walk home. Finally pausing, he looked up and saw whose invitation he’d just extended. She was the class perfectionist, the straight-A-student who still managed to maintain the “popular-status” at school, perfecting the balance between academic and personal-responsibilities. It was the way she looked at him during class that signaled trouble. She was his ‘secret’ admirer—smiling at every line, laughing at every joke, unbroken eye-contact, an unquenchable thirst for time alone.
He’d never faced this kind of energy before and didn’t have the right amount of guts to put the youngster in her place—as lovely as she had been—it ultimately made him extremely uncomfortable. The baby-faced girl approached his desk with perfect posture.
“Hi professor, I’m leaving today—going to Miami.” she said, eyes glued to the ground.
“I know. You’ll be excused from Monday’s paper, just make sure you hand it in by the end of next week.” He zipped his bag shut.
“Right—well, I wanted to catch you after class because, well—I wanted to give you something,” she said with difficulty. His eyebrows raised. “Last week your favorite pen broke after class. I know because you left with red fingertips that weren’t red during our lecture. I know how much you loved using that thing and—” she reached into her dark denim pocket with a smirk, producing an aluminum-covered precision pen. Matthew looked at his last-minute gift with honest surprise.
“Wow, you really didn’t have to do that,” he said in vain.
“I know but I felt so bad for you. Please don’t think it’s creepy or weird or anything, I just—,” she turned up blank.
“I know—that’s very sweet Jennifer, but your paper’s still due Thursday.” They exchanged quick smiles. She gently took the new pen out of his hand, pulled off the top and began doodling on his desk’s calendar with confidence.
“Oh, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with me,” she said. He’d be pleased with her work all right, but it’d come as no surprise—he knew this girl juggled a different extracurricular activity every day of the week.
“We’ll see,” he said. Her doodling made its way into the second week of April; bubbly hearts and crude squiggles outlined the calendar. He realized the silence only after it had already established itself with curious tension. Her bent legs intentionally brushed against his outer-thigh.
“Jenny come on!” the girl burst into the room with excitement. “We’re gonna be late!” she said, motioning her friend to hurry. “Hey Professor Ellis.” Matthew snapped at attention—facing his temporary drill sergeant disguised as a young brunette.
“Jacqueline,” he said nodding his head in acknowledgement. Jennifer gathered her books and nestled them safely between arm and hip.
“Have a great weekend professor,” she said walking out.
“What took you so long?” Matthew heard Jacqueline asking in the hallway, before the two girls’ voices became indistinguishable from the mesh of audible discord.
The department flourished with beautiful, intelligent teachers—ready and willing. They flirted with him, they teased him, they played the part perfectly. The permanent ring on his finger meant their advances were ultimately failed. Some took notice of this, most didn’t care to. They didn’t realize his relationship with the “fire-crotch.” He understood their misunderstanding, considering the simple creatures they were. Each walk past the “Professors’s Table” reminded him why he kept it together;
They’d met when both were hired for a local newspaper within the same week—she as essayist, he as fact-checker. Fate’s been begging Matthew’s acceptance since adolescence, so it follows that they’d been placed on the same story. She couldn't stand his sarcasm, at the same time—her wit’s what did it—he instantly fell for the fire-breather. The sharp-tongued redhead reeled his heart onto ground with arrogance.
Retrospectively, it all seemed so scripted—the art school-scholarship he’d turned down in favor of a philosophy degree, the scar Charlie’s bullet left on her father’s ear, just missing its target—innumerable factors which would’ve altered their meeting, their course, their births. No question the story was writing itself out in real-time, but he couldn't ignore the distant, unceasing sense calling attention to itself from the muddled depths of his mind—that it had always been and always will be designed.
Her writing was humble. Its message came across to the barely literate as it did the scholars. Being a borderline-feminist, her printed voice was a widespread, equal-opportunity recruiter—grabbing any bystander within earshot by the collar, demanding attention, respect and by article’s end, a treaty of alliance. Her gift was the moment a reader began thinking her thoughts as his own. The phrase was always different, depending on the audience. They’d gravitate toward their own individual tone and the fuse was lit. That phrase; so full of passion, so artful they’d miss its tattered edges completely. They’d pull its ideology out from its boundaries of black ink, constraining it strictly to print, and wear it proudly as badges of courage and defiance.
She’d become the mouthpiece for whispering cowards too afraid to stand up and shout. The tyranny of local police, commercialized outsourcing of crops, the Senator’s sealed records and expunged harassment charges, the congregation’s collective blind-eye in favor of a false prophet’s inflated bank statements; she’d protested all with unrelenting fire.
She was an unstoppable hail of truth and morality. A fervency no amount of desperately sticking duck-tape could silence. Now; embers holding on for meaning through concern over his blazer-shortage. It burned a painful hole inside Matthew’s gut.
“Matty,” she’d deliberately say, “their having a sale on sports jackets this weekend at that place you love so much. You promised me you’d try on a couple of new ones.”
“At that place I love so much?” he thought. They’d walked past a small store in the mall once that sold cheap blazers. He hated everything he saw, felt cramped by the lack of space and agreed to buy two sports coats Rachel picked out just to leave quicker. She didn’t remember the store’s name but somehow stayed on top of its sales. Yes, it was something she’d mention for him, because she was so selfless that she made it a point to remind him of his dwindling wardrobe. Ugh. A hollow in the pit of his stomach turned violent.
She alone saw him as the 60-year old wrinkled man with a cane living inside an early 40s body with a BMI of 23 and knew how much he despised ‘Matty’ and the aura it carried with it.
She crumbled with her career—let the failure spread into her daily life. She gave up for many years, and lately it’s been the once-a-week salon visit, new heels every few days. A sudden overwhelming interest for the mundane that ultimately felt distant; lack of wardrobe, refiling of taxes, etc.
The undeniable stench of fine-tuned fabrication lingered in the air every time she spoke. He worried but didn’t allow for obsessive examination, searching for and scrutinizing each misstep she made. She was human. Humans miscalculate order of errands, hours of grocery stores and why it took an hour to make a ten-minute drive.
He accepted the probable as inevitable, but chose to focus in on the doubtful instead—that his wife remained faithful to him, that a union spanning a quarter-century still meant on day 8,012 what it had on the first. It sounded far-fetched, flimsy and pathetic that a man in his “position” should cosign such mistreatment. When the sun would set however, it served as the lubricant—greasing the rust-enveloped gears of his marriage—providing transitional ease from Home to Office to Classroom until the sludge of everyday life could stretch no further, whipping back toward its locked position on the unbalanced treadmill of existence.
It was a 24-year marriage imploding from the chaotic thunder of the world around it, and its inability to match that loudness. Their home was collapsing from quiet weakness, unable to fight back or spark a fuse. They married, made love on their honeymoon and moved in together. Stick to the script. His career flourished, hers didn’t. They doubled their income every four to six years. New cars, clothes and kitchen cabinets. When national philosophy-based journals published Matthew, they would fly out to new locations, taking deep breaths of new air their future lives would become accustomed to. New cars, clothes and kitchens. Stick to the script!
They’d keep in touch with the old friends and make dinner plans with the new. He’d tell her how they changed the billboard at the I-75 onramp. She’d tell him about the new four-dollar-deal at their favorite two-dollar-carwash that included adhesive tire spray. “It makes them last longer,” she’d say, not knowing a damn about tires, much less care. She just wanted to have a little something to contribute over dinner which Matthew understood, even appreciated. She still tried to save them back then. After years of consistently reshooting the same scene repeatedly, day after day, he couldn't take it anymore and willingly shut off. A person with no opinions living in wait for ugly shades of death.
She sat him down on some snowy day when her nerves were going to break and proposed having a child. He struggled to hold back a rush of tears, knowing this is exactly what they needed. That being parents was something both of them had dreamt about—that it would reunite and recoil their shared energy. For that entire winter and most of the spring, they remained active and optimistic. They tried reading books, keeping a schedule, eating right, drinking less. A quiet, incessant doubt creeped out from shadowed corners into the room every time they’d fall asleep. Both felt its presence and refused to acknowledged its threat with arrogant tenacity. The dam wouldn’t hold much longer—they needed direction. The man grabbed hold of his life’s reigns, eager to feel in control of his own fate. An impromptu visit to a local clinic while walking home led to the first secret Matthew ever readily kept from his wife. She won’t know how to handle this. He didn’t want her to feel the same hurt and lack of individuality he felt of himself.
A year after they decided to have a baby, Matthew sat a confused Rachel down and revealed his infertility. He said everything he could say while still loving her and trying to understand the situation they’d been given to work with. Everything crumbled to a deafening toleration after that. An acceptance of life, of situation and worse; of fate. He didn’t want his wife to “tolerate” him—he wanted to be needed and vice versa.
His voice had been stifled down to assessing midterms and mediocre arguments via red Xs, checkmarks and letter grades. Worse than it disappearing completely, his desire for conversation too had vanished. Interesting that their voices should swap. A tradeoff neither anticipated for, much less pre-approved.
“Hey it’s Ellis!—Professor Ellis I’ve got something for you!” A gesturing boy called out across the walkway, signaling Matthew over. Cameron sat with back against a cement bench which was taken up by a skinny, sunglass-wearing stranger perched Indian style who cradled a full head of blonde hair in his lap. The girl lay flat on her back, her long legs stretched across the length of the bench. A wrapped bandana around her forehead kept the long-streaked locks at bay. Matthew walked towards the trio with a shaking head of disapproval all the while holding a smile.
“Mr. Cameron and Ms. Timbre, what you have for me are both your papers from last week, correct?”
“Well, it’s funny—I was just sitting down to start mine the other night when I realized, you already know that I know,” Cameron smirked.
“I already know that you know what exactly?” asked Matthew.
“That I know the material, that I can handle myself on the floor in there,” Cameron said, pointing toward the building. He was arrogant but true to his word, intelligent. He could handle himself with the school’s most “celebrated” faculty, assuming they’d ever give him the time of day. He was a “troublemaker,” and a “disillusioned youth,” other professors once warned Matthew about in private before the semester began. Instructors didn’t give him a chance, so he’d always returned the treatment.
“It doesn’t matter what you think you know. I need to see that you can express yourself and convey your take on these ideas to strangers off the street.”
“Let’s do it! Right now, let’s go up to the first five people we see, they can grade me themselves,” Cameron said, full of sincere enthusiasm. When Matthew did stumble upon the rare paper the kid would turn in, it’d prove to be a diamond amongst dust. He didn’t hold Cameron to lower standards like other teachers, he expected more from him. He could see the youngster taking the words to heart when his teacher would express either disappointment or pride.
Cameron loved debate, as did Matthew—not for the sake of crowning a champion, but for something to think about on the way home. He challenged the professor only when he had something valid to say—Matthew appreciated this.
The girl giggled in random spurts, sighing loudly in-between humming to herself. Near-closed eyelids freely admitted foreign chemicals had taken her body for hostage and her mind as playground equipment. A mother’s dream realized on cement benches the nationwide. Matthew figured her out by the semester’s second week. She was a poster child for the collective would-be beauty queens-turned-drug enthusiasts, detesting their individual households while simultaneously holding each other in jealous complexion.
Her knees pushed through the ripped holes toward daylight. Opposite the message their torn and tattered jeans tried to convey; they showed no scrapes, no signs of struggle. Her dazed humming instantly turned charming as Matthew stared at this social-soldier who’d went AWOL before the war even began. She wanted to believe in her fight against conformity, but couldn't back up a single ideology her nihilism stood for.
She searched for acceptance everywhere except the bathroom mirror—through every substance, in any stranger’s lap willing to hold her tired head. It was organized tragedy in three acts; starting with the wittingly unkempt hair which could’ve served as inspiration for poetry in another life. It traveled downstream to a cliched waist; so thin and precious the ribs above worked overtime. Tension built downward toward climax—her toes; exposed for everyone to see except herself, who’d seemed interested enough in painting them new shades of neon green or bright orange every few days but never cared to notice their bruised track-marks smearing their worth.
They must’ve said something when she’d lay in bathtubs filled with warm escape—poking out above the water, looking her in the eyes—appealing the master’s decision to misuse them as evil entrance. Even if they did shout in protest every time her eyes met their cracked polish, she’d hear but never listen.
Matthew heard bits of talk on occasion; how “a court-order required the Greenwich Girl’s arms to be checked every Monday before class in the nurse’s office,” or if passing a particularly pretentious group—how “she wouldn’t live past 26.”
Then the new semester started and he finally met this “supposed-waste.” She didn’t doodle, didn’t check her cellphone every five minutes like the rest—she just stared down at her empty desk. Searching for something that wasn’t ever there.
He remembered the only time he’d seen her father in person; a spur of the moment meeting nearly two hours after he’d normally close his office. The heavy knock allowed no acknowledgement as the door swung open.
“Ellis?” the pompous man asked Matthew.
“That’d be me.” Matthew never understood why 50-year old men still insisted on flaunting an irrational amount of chest hair. The half-buttoned shirt, of course he would. The look was missing its mandatory 14 karat-diamond necklace with matching pinky ring needed in validating the full-caricature. His Royalty sat down with crossed legs and pulled out a Blackberry.
“So about Timbre…” he continued on with his speech, delivering each line with less energy than the last, never once breaking eye-contact with the glowing screen in his hand. He went on about how Timbre’s school habits don’t consist of turning in each paper, showing up for every test or giving the best presentations when she does show up for class. That given her recent academic record—a 3.8 GPA—it follows that he’d do anything he can as her father to make sure this “streak of genius” continued, including but not limited to; any plane, concert or cruise tickets, any car whatsoever or just a friendly deposit into any account.
Matthew clinched his hidden fists, wanting nothing more than to throw them across his desk rather than keeping them underneath. He hated this man’s attitude, his self-imposed show of support for his daughter made Matthew sick, but managed to come up with reasonable words of advice;
“Timbre is a bright young woman Mr. Barnett, she’s got every resource available to help her maintain that GPA. I haven’t got any doubt she’ll do it.” The man finally met Matthew’s fixed gaze with curiosity, anger and surprise.
“She will maintain it if you allow her to, Professor.”
Matthew made certain to keep his manners, mindful that this perfect opportunity for an exercise in unrestrained opinion wasn’t worth losing his job over. He wanted to lash out and accuse this pathetic man unfit to be called a parent that his daughter’s rebellion was his cause. That the realities of their household was his failure and not hers. He wanted to say a million things that would’ve ultimately made this poor girl’s life even more miserable. So when he opened his mouth, all that came out was—
“She will if she wants to. I am running late though, you understand,” Matthew looked at the digital clock on his desk that’d been silently yelling at him louder and louder with each passing minute. The oily man stood up, instead of reaching out his hand in agreement, decided that nodding was the best he could offer and left—slamming the door in his exit.
Now staring at the ruined girl before him, Matthew couldn't help but forgo the easy route of passing judgement others in his place would happily take. He wanted to pity them but felt envy instead. The craving sensation to be that young again—to be so sure of yourself and of how the world worked. How did the youth always have inside knowledge, and why did it always dissipate with age? Timbre’s eyes widened, seeming to snap right into their conversation without missing a beat;
“What about the sick?” she asked. “Why would someone who’s knocking down death’s door want to think about consequence? Aren’t they just numbering down the days anyway?”
He looked at the girl with concerned eyes. “Is she okay?” he asked, expecting a brush-off.
“Yeah, Timbre always gets like this. Listen though—say a kid throws a brick through a Straight Camp-recruiting office’s window, or spray paints ‘MURDERERS’ on Philip Morris buildings,” he said all within the same breadth while lighting a cigarette. “Does it make the illegal crime less illegal because he’s doing it for the good of society?” Impressed by Cameron’s complete obliviousness and his nonchalant approach, Matthew gave the contrarian his philosophical fix.
“Well, let me ask you this; you had two routes available to you earlier, you chose to get high. Both of those routes had their own set of consequences, like all choices. So, just because you made a choice in the moment, does that constitute that the decision was always predetermined for you?”
“You’d be a fun trip Professor Ellis,” said Timbre with slow pronunciation.
“Hey, yeah! What’re you doing later?” asked an excited Cameron. “Forget whatever plans you’ve got, come hang out with us. We’ve got some new party favors that’d blow your mind!”
“Cameron, go home. Type that paper up and shoot me an email.” The teen sarcastically placed fist-under-chin, looked down in deep thought and gave his teacher a thumbs-up. Matthew was off—heading toward the subway station a few blocks north.
Amidst a stew of street traffic and intangible sounds, Matthew trekked his way through a concrete labyrinth; over steaming sewer lids, past blind beggars he couldn’t refuse giving extra change to. Through the sharp and calloused—he’d eventually find his warm sanctuary. A soulmate-turned-good friend to meet him at the front door with offers of dinner and hot tea.
The display windows shot back a sad reality; no person walking past could fit into their advertised box. The blue dress was too expensive, the jeweler’s watch told more about the wearer than it did the time, the clutch purse embellished the girl’s sexual tastes more than it did itself.
Throughout the walk a thought lingered above Matthew’s head; What about the sick? Timbre’s words followed his psyche like heat-seeking missiles, aimed solely at his heart. He couldn’t help but think of the girl, lost in a haze of unreliable logic and misunderstanding, or of Cameron’s future or even Jennifer’s misguided innocence. Such wasted talent.
The depressing reality that no employer would ever consider him a serious candidate without a proper degree, the fact that these kids had decades to live, to fail and learn, to shine brighter with each passing chapter and how instead, they’d trade in the long-term fulfillment for fleeting moments of temporary euphoria—it seemed counterintuitive. Maybe he just grew up with the wrong generation.
He paid the fare and was walking toward his train’s waiting pad when his peripherals proved their importance. He froze and looked toward the blurry picture he’d walked past and almost didn’t-notice; a picture, an ad for a product—for toothpaste.
He reexamined the advert; an ecstatic preteen, gorgeous blonde mother with big hazel eyes looking at her counter-model filling the ‘fun-loving husband’-role whose upper-body said he was spending more time at the local gym than he did his daughter’s school plays. Regardless of subjective opinion; they seemed so ‘happy’ and ‘in love.’ They were perfectly placed together, smiles and all. Behind them towered the most meticulously decorated Christmas tree a person’s ever thought up. It was the camera-obsessed extra in the background of restaurant scenes whose gesticulations border on embarrassing in plastic, inanimate-form. Underneath sat more Christmas presents than all the empty display boxes in the local mall, each obviously wrapped by the hands of the Gift-God himself.
At their feet sat the center of attention; their innocent-looking daughter with a face so shocked it made Matthew wonder if she didn’t use the advert’s irony as direct inspiration. Outstretched arms were captured mid-moment of her pulling off the top from one of the larger presents. A small Yorkshire puppy poked its head out from inside the box—pink bow atop her short black and brown hair.
He stood back and drank it all in; the perfect amount of accumulated snow on the window sill, the plate of half-eaten sugar cookies, the lit candles on the fireplace housing a burning pile of logs. Everything was sticking to the script and he felt a furious urge to destroy it. To help it achieve some sort of—realism. Matthew reached into his bag, feeling around for its shape, and pulled out his shiny red felt marker. He smiled with cruel eyes and attacked with fury. His anger shot out in globs of red. He hammered the canvas with his pen and smeared the ink with his fingers. He was Cameron throwing bricks, breaking windows. He was a broken Timbre shouting out “Why can’t you miss me?” at an indifferent father. He became his young wife raging against artificial moments of emotional attachment.
The station’s whirlwind of sounds disappeared; there were no trains, no strangers, only an artist and his work. People in near proximity took notice. Some pulled out cellphones to capture the ‘crazed man at the station, writing on walls.’ Most just gawked.
When he finally stopped and stared at his work, he couldn’t help but explode into a burst of laughter; a toothless family of rednecks with uneven horns and crude mustaches hung displayed for the world to see—a rush of emotion that comes around with less frequency the older one gets. It felt good.
When people approached the defaced artwork—needing to see for themselves what great alterations this drunkard must’ve made—they shook their heads in disappointment. They were looking for something clever. This was something they mastered in first grade and no longer impressed anyone. This man was obviously bored, crazy or both.
Matthew walked off feeling a bit silly, a bit embarrassed and completely alive. Simplicity. No affair, no chemical, just a working red marker and an elementary school-sense of humor to realign his logic.
As he walked, every miserable thought that’d haunted him, begging him for resolve within the past few years washed over with eerie clarity. He pitied the wisdom of weaker men. The insecure that prey on the lonely, the disrespected wedding rings collecting dust in dark corners of empty pockets, little girls parading around as housewives giving in to little boys that self-branded themselves with promises of “escape,” “revitalization,” and “helping to find lost passion.”
Free will, fate...it didn’t matter anymore, not for that moment—it was too pure and honest to be placed under a microscope for “further analysis.” Matthew felt organic and realized the sheer influence his own actions had on that space in time carved out just for him. He gave into it wholly, knowing it’d soon be over. Then afterward, the next moment would be waiting.