And Foolish Notion
Eric Masden negotiated his way through the milling groups of students toward his office at the end of the hall. Again, he couldn’t help but notice how many of them were texting or Twittering or talking on cell phones rather than to each other. Why do they hang out together? he wondered. Was each group the center of its own vast social network, or did each person find someone who wasn’t there more interesting than someone who was?
Ahead of him he could see Wanda Crowley, one of his freshman English students, sitting on the floor in front of his office, her black parka pulled about her, waiting for him. He’d asked her to come by this afternoon because of the essay she’d turned in on Robert Burns’ “To A Louse: On Seeing One On A Lady’s Bonnet At Church,” the poem with the famous observation: “O wad some Power the giftie gie us; To see oursels as ithers see us!” Her essay was a very short one, consisting of the words: “It’s bullshit.”
She sat with her back against the wall next to his office door, hunched over her iPhone. Her long, dark hair hid her face, which he knew was a face that contained a great deal of metal. Her eyebrows alone must have had six piercings.
She looked up as he approached, and he saw that she’d added to the display. She now had a pearl attached to her left nostril that hung down to her upper lip, looking like a silvery piece of snot.
“Hi, Ms. Crowley,” he said, getting his key out of his coat pocket. “Come on in.”
She didn’t return his greeting, but merely nodded as she put the finishing touches on her text or tweet, or whatever. Then she got up and followed him inside.
He’d already hung his coat on the coat tree and was at his desk, when he was surprised to see her hanging up her coat on top of his. Most students didn’t do that. They either wore them or kept them in their laps during these brief conferences. His first thought was that it was good; it meant she felt at home. His second was the fleeting notion that, like the woman in the poem, she might have lice. It made him feel a little ashamed of himself.
He invited her to have a seat, and she took the chair opposite him. She sat on the edge of it, her elbows planted in the holes of her ripped jeans, her eyes gazing abstractly at the surface of his desk.
In his 15 years at the college, he’d seen a lot of students like her, freshmen who didn’t know what they were doing there. They felt lost and under intolerable pressure to succeed at something they weren’t even sure they wanted. When he’d read Wanda Crowley’s “essay,” he thought it might be a plea for help.
“Don’t worry, Ms. Crowley, I wasn’t offended by what you wrote,” he said, “and I’m not going to grade you on it. I was just wondering why you approached the assignment the way you did.”
She shrugged. “It’s how I feel,” she said, almost in a whisper. She still hadn’t looked at him.
“Is it okay if I call you Wanda? You can call me Eric if you’d like.”
She shrugged again.
“I’ll take that as a yes. Well, as you know, I teach English for a living. It’s not much of a living, but one thing that’s nice about it is helping people express themselves. It makes me feel good when that happens. When it doesn’t I feel kind of sad.”
She looked at him for the first time, in annoyance.
“So I made you sad; is that the problem?”
He knew she was angry; what she’d written was angry. He wasn’t expecting confrontation, but maybe this was good. It would certainly spark more discussion than if she sulked the whole time.
“Not at all,” he said. “I’d love it if you wrote something that made me sad. But in this case, if you don’t like a poem, I’m afraid you can’t just leave it at that. You have to tell us why.”
She shook her head.
“I didn’t say I don’t like it. I guess it’s okay as a poem. What I said was that it’s wrong.”
“So…if we could see ourselves as others see us, it would decidedly not ‘from many a blunder free us, and foolish notion.’ Is that right?”
“That’s right!” she said. “It wouldn’t be a good thing at all. In fact, it would make it worse.”
His eye kept being drawn to the pearl-like object dangling from her nose. There was a stud on her chin that looked like a bright, shining pimple and some sort of ring impaled in her left cheek.
“It sounds like you’ve got a great starting point for an essay,” he said. “Tell us why Robert Burns is wrong. Elaborate on your idea. Explain it to us.”
“There’s no way to explain it,” she said. “It just is, that’s all.”
He had the thought that she, in wearing stuff in her face as some kind of statement, would be a prime example of why Robert Burns was right. He remembered when he was her age, thinking of himself as an individualist but really only wearing the uniform of his generation, which did not, thank God, include self-mutilation. But it takes years before you realize that.
She was back to staring at the surface of his desk. A sense of helplessness descended on him.
“Wanda,” he said gently, “I said I won’t grade you on this and I won’t. It would be wonderful if we didn’t have to give grades at all, but they make me do it. I’ll eventually have to pass you or fail you. Now, I think you have a good idea here. You obviously have a firm belief about this poem. Just find the words to express it. Okay?”
“Sure,” she said in a flat tone of voice.
“And if you need any help at all, or just want to bounce something off me, I’m always available. You can e-mail me or see me after class or during my office hours. Do you think you can have it ready by this time next week?”
She gave one final shrug as she got up and moved toward the coat tree. Then she stopped and turned toward him.
“If you realized on your own that I was right, would that do?”
It was one of the oddest things a student had ever said to him. It made him wonder if she had some sort of cognitive disorder.
“I don’t know, Wanda,” he said carefully. “This is an English course, and you’re supposed to do some writing.”
“But if you knew I was right, then you’d understand and be able to help me with it.”
“I suppose,” he admitted, “but I don’t know quite what you’re getting at.”
She broke into a smile that was actually very pretty, despite the snot pearl. Then she reached for her parka, fumbled with it a moment, then took it off the coat tree.
“Thank you, Eric,” she said liltingly.
* * *
The strangeness began while he was waiting for the bus home. He’d just sat down on the bench by the curb when a woman’s voice popped into his head. “Is that him?” it said.
He’d felt it, rather than heard it; that was the weird thing. It startled him. He looked around. There was nobody.
“No, that isn’t Harry. But he looks so much like him.”
He tried not to panic. Was this some kind of stroke? He was in his forties now, officially what people call middle aged, and such possibilities occurred to him. But it wasn’t like any stroke symptom he’d ever heard of.
Out in the street, there was a car waiting for the light to change. It was a green Nissan with a woman behind the wheel, and she was looking in his direction.
“I wonder if he’s Harry’s cousin or someth…” They made eye contact for an instant, and the woman looked away. The voice cut off as she did.
He kept staring at her. She looked straight ahead until the light changed, then drove off.
It was so jarringly disorienting that he didn’t even notice when the bus came. It was suddenly there in front of him, the doors open.
Stiff legged, he got up from the bench and climbed on, clutching his briefcase and fumbling in his pocket for his transit card. The driver, a burly African-American man, glanced at him as he swiped it, and a deep, bass voice in his mind said, “White…” before the driver’s eyes moved to the side mirror, then ahead as he pulled out into the traffic.
Eric just stood there, stunned. A sudden lurch as the bus driver hit the brakes made him lose his balance. He grabbed for the nearest pole and almost fell into the lap of an elderly woman. “I’m sorry,” he muttered.
She looked at him in annoyance, and in his mind he heard, “Clumsy fool.”
He staggered down the aisle and collapsed onto a side seat. What’s happening to me?reverberated in his head like a tape loop. Other strange voices came to him. “Dorky.” “Not bad-looking for an older guy.” “My dad’s got a coat like that.”
He realized they were coming from the three teenagers across from him, two boys and a girl. They were talking to each other, laughing, bouncing up and down in their seats, totally self-absorbed. But, like the others, when they looked at him, for that moment he felt their thoughts. Their thoughts about him.
The insanity and the dead certainty of it hit him all at once. Wanda Crowley. She’d done this to him somehow, put some kind of spell on him so he’d see himself as others see him.
His mind spun madly. How can that be? And more important, what was he going to do?
He tried to calm himself. Maybe it’s temporary. After all, he hadn’t felt anyone’s thoughts for the last few minutes, had he?
The teenagers were laughing and goofing around, not paying any attention to him. He screwed up his courage and went for it.
“S’cuse me,” he said, “do any of you know what time it is?”
They all looked at him. His head was filled with an unintelligible cacophony of voices, cascading over each other. He almost screamed.
Nobody seemed to notice. One of them must have answered, because they looked away and resumed what they were into.
He was sweating now. He had to find his student contact list and get a hold of her. Whatever this was, she had to make it stop! As soon as he got home…
The thought of home suddenly hit him with a new kind of fear. Sophie.
She taught economics at the college. They’d been seeing each other for a little over a year and a half now, taking it slow because, first of all, she was ten years younger and, second of all, they were both coming off bad marriages. It had been six months since she’d moved in with him. At this very moment she was home getting their dinner ready.
Did he really want to know her true thoughts? To feel her voice in his head, telling him whether she loved him or she was just saying it? His first wife had done that, just said it, for a long time.
The amazing thing was, he never suspected, right up to the moment she told him about her boyfriend and said she wanted a divorce. How unobservant he must’ve been in those days. Was he still? Did he really want to find out?
He spent the rest of the trip wrapped in his turmoil. No one looked at him and he heard no voices. Finally, the bus reached his stop.
He had no awareness of walking the two blocks to his apartment building or taking the elevator. He found himself in front of his door with the key in his hand. For several seconds he stood there, breathing hard. Then, with a sigh, he put the key in the lock and opened the door.
Scrumptious aromas greeted him, some kind of baked salmon. Sophie was still in the kitchen.
“Hi, Soph!” he called out, trying to sound normal as his heart pounded.
“Hi, honey,” she called back. “Wait, don’t take off your coat.”
Then she was there in the entranceway to the kitchen, her auburn hair framing her beautiful, cherubic face. She started to say something but it went by him. All he heard and felt was her voice in his head, saying, “God, how I love this man!”
He’d never in his life felt such relief. He took her in his arms and they kissed. She loved him; she really loved him. Why had he doubted it even for a second?
In the midst of his gratitude and joy, he was marginally aware that he wasn’t feeling her thoughts. He remembered that it seemed to depend on the person looking at you. Tenderly, he ended the kiss, drew back, and gazed into her eyes.
“Oh, yes. Oh, yes!” he heard in his mind.
“Whew!” she said aloud, smiling at him coquettishly. “What was that for?”
He began to say it was because he loved her more than anything in this world, when his breath caught. In his head, in a little girl’s voice, she’d added one more word: “…Daddy?”
It threw him. He stared at her.
She gave a chuckle. “No way to describe it?” she chided. “…Daddy?” she finished in his mind.
She laughed. “That’s okay, you don’t have to. You just have to keep your coat on and go back downstairs, ’cause I screwed up. We’ve totally run out of wine. Get a bottle of Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio, something like that. Get two bottles.”
He must’ve still looked dazed. “What’s the matter, honey?” she asked, while, in a warning tone, her voice in his head said, “Don’t look indecisive. I hate it when you’re indecisive.”
“Nothing,” he blurted out. “I just wandered off there for a second. I’m sorry, two bottles of Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio, right?”
“Right.” She smiled again, while, in his head the same spooky, little girl’s voice said, “I need you to be strong and self-assured, Daddy. You’re the one I picked, and now you’re going to take care of me for the rest of my life.”
She’d never said much about her father. He’d died when she was very young, and her mother had worked two jobs to raise her and her sister. She was proud of it, and of her own independence. It was one of the things he loved about her. What was happening? Who was she?
He edged toward the door. “Okay, then, I’ll be right back.”
“Hurry,” she told him. “And if you kiss me like that again when you get home, we might be having a late dinner.”
“Mmm,” he said, hoping it sounded convincing, as his fingers crept toward the door knob. Her erotic thoughts were different from the others. They weren’t in words; they were in fantasy images. And one of those images looked disturbingly like him with a stud in his penis. A wave of revulsion propelled him through the doorway, as he flung himself out of the apartment.
He stood in the hall with the door closed behind him, finally free of her thoughts. It felt like he’d been released from a torture chamber. He had an urge to get in that elevator, keep going, and never look back.
The next thing he was aware of was the street in front of his building. He stood there, not knowing what to do next. An older, male voice intruded in his head. “Mugger?” it said.
He looked up the block and saw a thin, elderly man walking toward him cautiously. He looked like he was ready to turn and flee at any moment. That did it. That was it.
“I am not a goddamn mugger!” he yelled at the man, who stopped and cringed. “Why would you think I was? What’s wrong with you?”
He jammed his fists into his coat pockets and turned away, moving toward the wine shop at the end of the street.
“Huh?” said the man’s voice in his head. “How did he know…?”
Eric felt something in the bottom of his right-hand pocket. The coat had umpteen pockets, and it was the first time he’d put his hands into these particular ones since this morning. What he felt was flat and square.
He stopped and took it out. He could feel the old man’s panicky voice in his mind saying, “What’s that, a gun? Oh my God!”
It wasn’t a gun, it was an iPhone. And it was on.
In the center of the LED screen was an eye. It roamed lazily about, yet always seemed to be focused on him. In small letters below it was the name of the application: “I C U C ME.”
He searched frantically for the off button, trying to ignore the old man’s mounting distress flooding his mind. The damned thing was so streamlined; where the hell was the button?
With a howl of frustration, he threw the phone to the ground. He brought his heel down and stomped on it, again and again.
“He’s a luna…” were the last words he felt the man think. Then, except for the fear and uncertainty, his brain went blissfully silent.
* * *
Wanda Crowley was absent from his freshman English class the next morning, as he gave the same lesson on Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” he’d been giving for years. He could’ve done it in his sleep, which was something he didn’t get very much of last night.
They hadn’t had sex, of course; he couldn’t bring himself to even attempt it. He’d made up an excuse, told her he had an upset stomach. She was very solicitous, saying she hoped it wasn’t her baked salmon.
Guilt gnawed at his insides. She loved him; he couldn’t just break up with her. What was he going to do?
He was sure Wanda Crowley had stayed away today on purpose. Well, she couldn’t just disappear off the face of the earth. He’d find her, and then he’d have a few choice words with her, although he had to admit he had no idea what they’d be. Suddenly, his life consisted entirely of unknowns.
Shortly after noon, as he was crossing the quad, he spotted her coming out of the administration building. She was walking down the steps, wrapped in her distinctive black parka and seemingly lost in thought.
“Ms. Crowley!” he called out. “Wait a minute; I need to talk to you!”
She looked at him and hesitated. He saw her glance up at the building as if she were considering escaping back inside. Then, her expression blank, she turned toward him and just stood there waiting.
He noticed she’d varied the facial jewelry. The ring in her left cheek was now something that looked like an infinity sign, and instead of the snot pearl, a tiny silver cross dangled from her nostril.
“Missed you in class this morning,” he said.
She shrugged. He had the thought that shrugging must’ve really built up her shoulder muscles by now.
“I dropped your course,” she said. “I dropped all of them; I’m quitting school.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he told her. “But it’s too bad you didn’t think of it before you saw me yesterday. You could’ve kept your iPhone.”
Another shrug. “Yeah, sorry about that.”
“Wireless technology is incredible, isn’t it? All kinds of signals floating around, and they can just tap into it. I’m not so good with tech stuff, though. I’m afraid I broke your phone.”
This got a wisp of a smile. “That’s okay; my parents will buy me a new one.”
“Let me ask you something,” he said. “What do you think it shows?”
Yet another shrug.
“Come on, Wanda, you use words all day long, texting and Twittering. Can’t you spare me a few more? Something a little deeper than LOL or that you’re somebody’s BFF? How about an emotion instead of an emoticon? Talk to me. What do you think it shows?”
She looked at him, and there were tears in her eyes.
“I don’t know what it showed you, but it showed me the only thing you’ll find out by seeing yourself like other people do is that they’re wrong. They only see you the way they want to. No one really understands you at all. Didn’t it seem that way?”
He nodded. “Yeah, something like that.”
“Makes it hard to pretend otherwise, doesn’t it?” she said, blotting at her eyes with the back of her hand. “But I guess we have to try, or at least act like we’re trying. So long, Dr. Masden, good luck in your life. I’m sure you mean well.”
She turned and ran down the steps, and he watched her as she was swallowed up by a crowd of students. He stared for a moment at the spot where she’d disappeared. Then he began to walk in the direction of the liberal arts building. There was a seminar on interpersonal communication that he was supposed to lead in an hour. Slowly, he made his way toward the entrance.