The steps you take remind me of my adolescence, a gentle breeze, a sly grin, a pitcher of ice cold Corona in the dead of July. But we’re not going to a baseball game tonight wearing boat shoes nor my neighbor’s annual July 4th barbecue where he hoists American flags and assures his parents the hotdogs are halal. Hand in hand, we’re walking down this hallway, our souls merging for our hearts’ sake. It’s so cold, you’re so strong. I don’t want to keep walking.
I take a good look at you. Porcelain skin, irises the shade of emeralds; in one, the girl who ran with my heart. When you called, my spirits rose yet my fingers trembled.
“Thanks for coming,” you turn to tell me.
“You don’t have to thank me.”
The door swings open. An elderly yet spry woman stands and approaches us, peering at our bloodshot eyes over her frames.
“I’m sorry, it’s past visiting hours,” she says.
The nurse wants to know the name of the school. Her demeanor improves once the word ‘Columbia’ enters the room, piercing in its finality.
“Well,” she says, taking her glasses off and cleaning them, “he certainly is popular,” with a tone of resignation.
We stand by the side of the bed, witness our former professor’s chest rise and drop with each breath taken and wait for the nurse to leave. The door closes and I place his hand in mine and clench it; perhaps tighter than I’m realizing.
I was a junior at Columbia. Or, perhaps it’s better to say I was in my third year of college. I had to use two hands to count the times I’d changed my major and while my best friend told me it was normal, while my mother told me to take my time, while my father didn’t mind as long as it was free, my advisor e-mailed me one dreary afternoon in October and had me in her office, sweating balls.
“I think it’s wise if you left here having declared a major once and for all. What is it you really want out of life?”
I was 20. I smoked Blue Camel Crushes, read Naked Lunch and listened to Sonny Rollins on vinyl. What did I want? I went through it all — political science, English, pre-med, finance, you name it.
Here I was before her, a representative of America’s future and still as indecisive as a child choosing an ice-cream flavor.
“How about creative writing?”
Professor Sharif changed my life. Not in the way the term is usually strewn about by twenty-somethings, often alluding to concerts or acid trips. I mean that Professor Sharif managed to push me beyond myself, allowed me to see the world from not only his point of view but others and, inexplicably, intertwined your fate with mine.
The first class was odd. He walked in the room, clutching his white briefcase loosely, and the first thing I noticed about him, shamelessly, was his skin color. Brown. I chalked it up as an ethnic victory and left it at that, the thought of earning extra credit if I spoke with him a little bit after each class lingering in the back of my mind. He wrote his name on the board: Adam Sharif. It was Introduction to Fiction Writing, there weren’t that many of us; mainly female students wanting an outlet. I didn’t blame them. How could I?
He turned to us, wistfully gazing upon the class and, as pre-meditated matters often go, remained on mine for a split second longer than the rest.
“How many of you have written fiction before?”
He strolled the classroom. A devilish smirk adorned his face and pushed his wrinkles back.
One hand. Two hands. Three. Fuck it, I raised mine as did the rest of the class. Professor Sharif, unfazed, commanded all of us to burn whatever we had written. Over the next few months, we read, read and read some more. I spent the semester depressed. I considered dropping out. Convinced this wasn’t going to work out one night, I opened my e-mail and saw a message from him, asking me to come meet him tomorrow morning. I remember e-mailing him back, asking to meet that night.
His office was small and cluttered with books. Lots of Rumi, lots of poetry in general. Odd for a professor teaching a fiction course. He was sitting there, waiting patiently, hands on either side of the desk, the faintest trace of a smile gracing his face. He looked much older than he does in the classroom. Maybe it’s because I sat in the back.
“So,” he began as I took a seat, “how are things?”
Terrible. “Fine,” I said.
“Fine,” he repeated, “fine, fine, fine…” his mind elsewhere.
“And,” he continued, “this is off the record… why are you majoring in Creative Writing? Do you have a story to tell?”
“I’m not too sure. I enjoy reading, I just finished Naked Lunch. But, it’s not enough. I want my work to be read the same way.”
“Well, unless you have read Naked Lunch on mushrooms, you have never really ‘finished’ Naked Lunch.”
There was a lull in the conversation and we were staring at each other. I remember trying to figure him out. The spark in his eyes did not give me clues, just further skepticism — or maybe, a sense of awe.
He began toying with a pen on his desk.
“I had a brother; he was a few years older than me — two or three, I can’t remember. My mind’s not as sharp as it once was. Let’s call him … let’s just call him by his name, Daniyal. Now, Daniyal got into quite a bit of trouble as a kid. I knew, deep down, he felt scorned beyond belief. The first born should always be the favorite, correct? What bond is deeper? Yet, my mother refused to associate with him. Maybe he did it to himself, maybe it was our fault. But, one night he went out for a cigarette and never came home. We searched for days.
He sighed and continued.
“And then, the police knocked on our door and had to bring us to identify him. My mother couldn’t even step through the door. But, do you know what I was thinking over the course of those days?”
“All I was thinking was ‘God damn, I wish I smoked cigarettes.’”
He didn’t believe in group workshops. He split the class up into pairs in the beginning of the semester. You had joined the class, a pre-med major seeking an escape from lab work. To this day, I’m not sure how he knew or if he even knew in the first place, but he paired us together, unknowingly binding our lives together and leaving my soul exposed.
We exchanged work that spring, fell in love with each other in the summer and split in the fall. Years passed by and the memories faded. Were we ever really happy? I thought about you all the time, then less, then even less, then never. I always felt a part of my heart with yours, the same part that confessed its love to you stargazing on the dewy grass the summer of graduation. Our souls blossomed in unison, you were the goddess of my lazy summer and I just wish I had done more.
Years later, he has brought us back. Back to square one. Back when it’s just both of us, sharing stories, laughing at inside jokes and longing for any bit of gratification that yes, we are on the right path, that yes, we are not making the mistakes those before us did, that yes, we are strong human beings capable of showing restraint. I’m terrified of this final lesson.
I wonder if he’s scared of death, if he still believes in God.
Our pupils lock in on each other. He motions to the bag on the side table, a weak nod, a distraction, a conclusive gesture.
I’m rummaging through the bag. Manuscripts, gum, napkins, a watch. What am I looking for here? Then, I’m staring at it and I’m back in his office that one day, insecure, belittled and above all else, humbled.
At the bottom of Professor Sharif’s bag is a lone cigarette, a black lighter by its side.
For next time.
Mustafa Abubaker is a 19-year old student and writer living in Atlanta, Georgia.
Ursula Spont is an artist and art therapist who currently works as an in-home family therapist in the Boston metro area.