December 13, 2019 § 20 Comments
By Karen Lynne Traub
With a “here goes nothing,” I submit my critical thesis, then pack the car with my vacuum, mop bucket and cleaning supplies and head to the cabin that is our vacation home and Airbnb rental. I walk through the house picking up towels and appraising the general condition, the floors, the bathrooms, how full are the trash and recycling bins. I relax into the routine, every moment taking me further from the brain wrenching work of writing and deeper into the comforting physical satisfaction of cleaning.
When the upstairs is done and the laundry going, I grab my phone and an ice cold can of Coke which I don’t normally drink but can’t let go to waste when left by a guest. I step out the back door, closing the screen slider behind me with my bare right foot, put the Coke on the glass table, sit down and see the subject line from my advisor Bernadette Murphy. “Reading your thesis; want to chat today?” I glance at the squirrel who is peeking up from the edge of the deck and think, “Uh oh Chippy, this can’t be good.”
I flashback to high school freshman English when my teacher Miss Thompson had written “See me!” on my homework. I had started the term with straight “A’s” but got bored and lazy and began to write my vocabulary sentences while watching Gilligan’s Island reruns. Miss Thompson says I can do better. She asks if I would like to help a boy in class who struggles with reading by writing stories and poems for him. I do and my grades improve.
Bernadette Murphy is a similarly astute, flexible and caring teacher. We talk by phone. She is kind. She is consoling. She is sorry. She says what I submitted might be shaped into a fine personal essay but it is not a critical thesis for an MFA program. I listen. I question. I try arguing a little. I tell her as an adult learner I am too old to go through the motions of a pointless exercise. She agrees. We end the conversation agreeing to think it over, she will check in with the program Director Ann Hood and we’ll talk again later. I go back to scrubbing the toilets, vigorously enough to splash toilet water. I shake out the rugs like they’re full of fire ants. I am vacuuming my way out the front door — my least favorite job saved for the last — when a voice bubbles up from somewhere “you don’t have to do this Kar, you can ditch the Newport MFA and move on to something else. It’s ok. You don’t have to be good at everything.”
Listening to NPR on the drive home I hear about the stream of migrants. I am annoyed they don’t call them what they are, which is refugees fleeing for their lives. I turn off the radio when I hear the president’s voice. I am starting to feel pretty shitty and the world is going to hell too.
When I get home, Frank is chopping zucchini — he’s on a diet that involves a lot of zucchini. Today the zucchini annoys me. I know that is not rational. I drop my backpack on the dining room chair and glance out the back windows at the darkening day. The mossy path and grass are still green but the ferns and bushes are turning red and yellow. Winter is coming. Days are getting short. Everything is dying. I go into the kitchen and pull a rat out of the freezer. Usually I wait until Frank is not around because he doesn’t relish seeing the rats I keep in the freezer to feed my snake, but today I don’t care. I grab the rat by its frozen tail and slam the freezer shut with my knee as I tell Frank about my conversation with Bernadette, how I’ll probably have to start over after all that work.
“Why are you so upset? You said you were handing in nineteen pages of crap.” Frank is my Prince Charming but he needs to go back to the chapter in the husband handbook that says “NEVER, ever, let the words ‘but you said,’ pass your lips.”
While we fight, I glance at my inbox and there’s a message from Ann Hood. I flush with the warmth I felt when my mom would put a kiss and a band aid on my scraped knee. Bernadette and I talk again. My voice shakes a little but I am too big to cry. I know she is right. She tells me I can do this and she will help me. It will be OK. With Ann and Bernadette behind me I feel my mom is with me too. When she still had hopes I would learn to love baseball as much as she did, she would say, in response to my wild swings at bad pitches, “shake it off batter, get back in there.”
The rat is defrosted so I wiggle it around with the barbecue tongs and Chloe grabs it voraciously and by instinct wraps it in her coils. I feel sad she was born in captivity, never learned to hunt and has to eat dead rats, then I go to bed.
I wake up after a surprising good night of sleep to the glorious gentle clink of the coffee cup on my bedside table delivered by Frank. I sit up, open my laptop and begin an email to Ann Hood:
“Dear Ann, If you could throw 400 pages of your first novel The Betrayal of Sam Pepper into the dumpster, then I can kill my rambling, overambitious darling and start over with a more manageable topic.”
With some ideas and a cup of coffee I set to work.
Karen Lynne Traub is a snake-charming belly dancer in the Quabbin region of Western Massachusetts. A student in the inaugural class of the Newport MFA at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island, she is writing a memoir about her local public library.