Distractions

Yesterday I showed up for my creative writing class—the one I teach—an hour late. The class is fifty minutes long.

Somehow, in scheduling conferences with my 101 section my timing was thrown and I got into my head that the class started at two rather than one, as it has for the past four weeks. It was only upon recognizing—or rather, not recognizing—a roomful of German students in my classroom that I realized my bizarre mistake.

With a clench in my chest and an astonishment at my new, record achievement in spaciness, I walked back to the English department in hopes of finding someone with whom to commiserate.

S wasn’t around. My mother didn’t answer her phone. Neither did the three friends I frantically called.

Finally, in the department computer lab, I happened upon two fellow instructors.

Both were sympathetic.

“Oh, that makes me feel better!” one said. “I’ve never done that. But I’ve done other things!”

“I’ve totally done that,” the other assured. “I always just play the ‘spacey creative writer’ card.”

“Oh good!” I said to her. “Good idea!”

“Oh yeah,” she said. “It happens. Especially when I’m in the middle of a big project. Are you in the middle of something big?”

I thought for a moment. Nothing sprang to mind. “No,” I said. “Not really. Just generally overwhelmed.”

“Oh yeah,” this colleague responded, bless her tactful heart. “I know the ‘generally overwhelmed’ thing too. Don’t worry about it.”

Her question, though, reminded me of a conversation I had the other night with NY S. I’d been telling her about my current crush, how another friend had advised me to take things slowly, and how I’d responded to him in complete exasperation.

“I don’t understand how people do that!” I’d said. “I don’t understand how, when you meet someone that you’re excited about and they’re excited about you, you don’t want to think about them all the time!”

“Hmmm,” she’d responded, attempting sympathy. “I guess other people are more focused on other things?”

“Oh,” I’d said. “Right.”

In the first writing workshop I ever took my teacher instructed me to go out and read as much Dorothy Parker as I could. I did. And now that I’m teaching myself, I make my students do the same.

Not really. But I did make them read her short story, “A Telephone Call.” It’s basically four pages of this:

Please, God, let him telephone me now. Dear God, let him call me now. I won’t ask anything else of You, truly I won’t. It isn’t very much to ask. It would be so little to You, God, such a little, little thing. Only let him telephone now. Please, God. Please, please, please. If I didn’t think about it, maybe the telephone might ring. Sometimes it does that. If I could think of something else. If I could think of something else. Knobby if I counted five hundred by fives, it might ring by that time. I’ll count slowly. I won’t cheat. And if it rings when I get to three hundred, I won’t stop; I won’t answer it until I get to five hundred. Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five, forty, forty-five, fifty…. Oh, please ring. Please.

The following day they came to class and told me how psychotic she is. I tried to explain the notion of persona. I tried to explain that the character, who may or may not reflect Parker herself, is not a compulsive-desperate-basketcase-freak all the time. Just, you know, sometimes.

I tried not to take it personally.

But their collective persuasion was so strong that I found myself, without quite realizing it, under its sway. I, too, began to think that Parker was a bit psycho. I began to think that I might be a bit of a psycho.

Yesterday afternoon I finally got hold of C, a girlfriend in DC. I told her about my mishap, and about my colleague’s question–whether there was some “big project” demanding my attention.

“Yeah,” I joked. “I’m trying to find a friggin husband.”

She laughed. I told her about what I’d said to S–how I didn’t know how to not get excited about something immediately, how to act unavailable, how to take things slow and not obsess.

“You don’t have time to do that,” C told me. “You have too much else to do!”

C was right. The fact is that whether I want to or not, I can’t spend all my time thinking about boys: I have papers to grade and books to read and courses to plan. When I didn’t show up for class yesterday I wasn’t thinking about my crush. I was sitting in the Student Union dutifully explaining to a parade of college freshmen why sentences need subjects and paragraphs, topics.

But it also happens–as it did a couple of nights ago–that my efforts to read dense texts of Serbian history and black feminist poetry are hopelessly thwarted by the fact that I am waiting for a boy to call.

And it happens–as it did yesterday–that there is so much going on in my head and life that I forget the simple time of a class I teach and leave twenty-one young creative writers to spend an hour playing hangman and contemplating the prompt that one of them, I’m told, got up to write on the board: “Where’s Elizabeth?”

A thought-provoking question, indeed.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Distractions

  1. Suz

    I love that! “Where’s Elizabeth?” Perfect. They are so smart.

  2. ep

    obviously it was your favorite 🙂

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