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The Drowning Duck
The Drowning Duck
There was a point in my high school career when shorthand texting slang suddenly became wildly uncool. Starting a sentence with a lowercase letter was socially unacceptable once again, and you’d be damned if you forgot to punctuate your text message. Of course, there were still nonsense response words that usually meant something like a confirmation. Words like “sick” and “swag” were replaced with “dope” and “ight.” Facebook profile pictures were now meant to look as professional and natural as possible -- no more Photo Booth pictures with a thermal camera effect. Society evolved, leaving behind the people who still spelled “you” with one letter to be the basic b*tches of the world. I adapted along with the majority of my peers, hoping to avoid being labeled as tacky. Honestly, I embraced this change. College came around and Twitter went out and Instagram came in. Yet another mode of competition for the insecure female population.
Last Thursday night, I was “working on a paper” in my dorm room. My roommate, Dan, was at a party and wasn’t expected back until very late. I was Snapchatting with a friend from back home and making my way through a giant Nalgene bottle filled with Diet Pepsi. The bottle was a translucent green, which made its contents look like pond water. The soda had come from the machine at 7-11. It’s usually frowned upon to fill up an outside container without making some sort of payment; some might even call it stealing. I don’t. At the bottom of the Nalgene bottle was a small plastic toy duck. I had super-glued it there six months ago. Every time I drink from the water bottle, I pretend the duck is drowning and I am drinking to save its life. I still take my time, though. I hate the bloated feeling I get after chugging soda.
My phone buzzed. Expecting a text, I hastily snatched it and checked the screen. I groaned. Just another email from the Cultural Alliance club. It’s beyond frustrating to be ethnic in this day and age; everyone wants something from you. These people have been on my brown *ss since the moment I stepped foot on campus. I keep having to remind them that I’m from the Bronx and the only Indian half of my parentage walked out when I was still crapping my pants. I’m more American than Nick Wray, the flannel-wearing lumberjack from Maine.
I refocused, rubbing the back of my neck. How the hell am I going to get this paper done? I stared at the blinking cursor on the nearly blank Word document. It was taunting me. I jumped up on a whim, grabbing my jacket, phone, and laptop, and marched out the door. New England was starting to get cold again, but I would trade a comfortable climate for picturesque autumn scenery any day. Even at night, the campus was breathtaking. It was right out of the brochure.
I always skimmed Professor Fry’s daily emails, but I managed to remember that he stayed late in his classroom every Monday and Thursday night. It’s unlike me to meet with teachers. Even in middle school I would avoid it and ignore the notes at the top of my tests. Teachers intimidated me; I felt like I was setting myself up to become their least favorite student or have them realize that I don’t have quite the fantastic work ethic I claim to. Nevertheless, I was desperate. The pressure of maintaining my scholarship was far more powerful than my inane fear of asking for help.
I made it to his classroom just as he was packing up to leave. I felt almost relieved. I contemplated opening the door -- I didn’t want to bother him, and just as I was about to turn around, he noticed me through the window on the door and motioned for me to enter. I reluctantly obliged.
“Mr. Ramphal! What a pleasant surprise. I was beginning to think you were mute. You aren’t mute, are you?”
“No sir,” I replied, having barely stepped into the classroom.
Professor Fry was as amiable as teachers came, which made him all the more frightening. He always smiled. I guess he had a lot to smile about. He lived five minutes from campus with his wife and two kids, Trevor and Phoebe. Their house had a picket fence and a tire swing hanging from a maple tree. His reddish-brown hair was acceptably messy, and he had small rectangular glasses that fit nicely on his freckled nose. He wore tweed jackets and carried around a brown leather messenger bag filled with books that weren’t from his class.
“How can I help you?” He asked.
“Oh, um, I’m having a hard time with my essay.”
“What do you have so far?”
“And that’s as far as I got.”
He looked down in thought. I was sure he was going to scold me for procrastination and wasting his time. I gulped and mentally backed out of the classroom. He scratched his cheek and then looked up at me, resuming his smile.
“I was just about to go get a drink. Would you like to join me? I know this great spot not far from here…”
“Sir, I’m nineteen.”
He scoffed. “I won’t tell anyone. Come on, Mr. Ramphal, it’s Thursday night!”
What had I gotten myself into? Why couldn’t I have just busted out some bullshit personal essay about tripping in public? I could be out with Dan at a party or at least saving my drowning plastic duck. I was about to go have drinks with my writing professor. I just prayed that nobody saw me, and before I knew it, I heard myself accept his invitation.
Professor Fry walked fast -- I broke into a jog at least twice. He would rapidly tell me anecdotes from his youth, interrupting himself every minute or so to rhetorically ask me if I’ve been to certain shops as we passed them. I tried to keep up, to mentally take notes in preparation for a future non-existent exam on the life of Peter Fry, but he kept losing me. By the time he pulled open the door to Clancy’s Pub, beads of sweat had formed around my hairline out of stress and fear.
We slid into a booth with green pleather seats. On the wall next to my head, there was a black and white picture of a woman riding a mechanical bull. I glanced at Professor Fry’s facial expression and I pitied his eagerness. I liked teachers – from a distance. But even from a distance, I was never particularly fond of teachers like Professor Fry. I tended to gravitate towards the sarcastic and dark-humored geniuses, who were grading Nazis and kept their class interested with pop culture references and the occasional verbal harassment of a student. This may sound like a specific description of my tenth grade World History teacher, Mr. Lamont, but surprisingly enough, I usually ended up with at least one of these guys every year. And they never failed to disappoint me. I didn’t like the clumsiness and the humility of Professor Fry. I didn’t like the way he told mundane stories about his family, and was nice to the students who were wrong. I didn’t like how much he smiled and I didn’t like how he was enthusiastic about his class, but embarrassingly so. Mr. Lamont knew everyone liked his class; Professor Fry wanted you to like his class. He was far from insecure, but he definitely took things too personally. And it’s not that all this annoyed me or rubbed me the wrong way; the second-hand embarrassment just made me extremely uncomfortable
A waitress came up to us and took our drink orders. In the dim lighting she seemed like she could be attractive. I would have suggested less eye make-up, a push-up bra, and a spray tan, though.
“Two beers,” Professor Fry said. She nodded and strolled over to the bar. I cringed with embarrassment. I wondered what a stranger would think if they saw a nerdy middle-aged teacher sitting in the same booth as a mildly attractive half-Indian kid.
“So, Professor Fry…”
“Please, call me Peter.”
“Okay. I’m confident that once I figure out what I want to write about that it won’t be difficult for me to finish the essay. I’m just stuck. I feel like I can’t really answer the essay prompt.”
“Bruce, I have to admit, I’m a little surprised. I gave the class this assignment as, well, to give you guys a break. I assumed this would be easy, and given how impressed I’ve been with your writing in this course so far, you’re the last person who’d I expect to be sitting with tonight. Don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted.” He grinned and exposed every one of his coffee-stained teeth.
“Sir, I just can’t seem to think of a time where I wanted to be someone else.”
At this, Professor Fry laughed. To be honest, I was a little insulted. I was being serious, though. Our beers came and I took a quick sip. I hated alcohol. The only times I ever really drank was when it would be more uncomfortable for me not to, and even in those cases I always pretended to drink more than I really did. Professor Fry took a big gulp.
“Have you ever been humiliated? Completely mortified? Have you ever not wanted to get out of bed and show your face? What I really want to see is you guys articulate the universal and utterly human emotion of shame. Everyone feels it. That’s why I gave you this assignment.”
I sighed and glanced down at the laptop on the seat next to me. I should have just made something up. I didn’t know how I had gotten there, how I had let myself get there. I racked my brain for any profound moment, anything that would impress him even just a little bit. What was really embarrassing was how boring my life had been.
“Does your family embarrass you at all?” he asked. My mom never really left the house, and I’d never known my father. I thought about my older brother, Jake. He’d always been more popular than me. Socially, I’d been living in his shadow my entire life. I was blanking, so I made something up.
“Well, in high school my brother was arrested for public nudity.”
Professor Fry smiled. “How did that even happen?”
“It was his eighteenth birthday and he went to celebrate with his friends in Manhattan. Apparently, he dropped acid and was convinced that if he took off all of his clothes and ran around the streets he would travel back in time and prevent the Holocaust.” Right off the top of my head. Brilliant. My entire life I had been conditioned to lie, and after many years I got very good at it. Sometimes I even believed what I was saying, and afterwards I mentally high-fived myself for the good work.
Professor Fry burst out laughing, spitting some beer only inches from me. He slapped his thigh and tossed his head back. I was suddenly filled with pride -- I had made him laugh. His laughter got me laughing and suddenly we were both clutching our abdomens.
“That reminds me way too much of this time back in college,” Peter said, calming down a little. “Believe it or not, I was quite the partier back then.”
“Yep. I even peed out of my dorm room window.”
“That is awesome.”
“I know. I think I have a disturbing amount of pride around that incident. But you know, my roommate wanted to kill me. No one gave me any grief, but for some reason people were rude to him about it.”
“See, that doesn’t make any sense to me. Jake was deemed a god after that night, and then I was getting made fun of. It sucked.”
“Sucked to be you?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Write about that, then. I’ll be anxious to hear the full extent of that story.”
Peter grabbed another beer for the road and we left the pub. He walked with me back to my dorm, engaging in a more two-sided conversation.
“Have you thought about joining the Cultural Alliance yet?” Peter asked.
“Not you too,” I groaned.
“Bruce, it’s a great group of kids, and I think you have a lot to offer.”
“I’m from the Bronx,” I explained.
“So, what? Really what we do is just talk about our lives and watch movies. Sunday, we’re watching Fight Club.”
“What does that have to do with the Cultural Alliance?”
“Nothing. It’s just a great movie. Can I count on seeing you there?”
“Sure,” I said, stopping in front of my dorm. I looked up at the red brick building. I could hear a showing running and faint techno music.
“Well, you better get started on that essay. I will see you tomorrow in class. It’s been a pleasure, Mr. Ramphal.”
“Yeah, it has. Goodnight, sir.”
I slammed the door to my room and disturbed a cloud of dust. How did that night even happen? I sat back down at my desk. I opened my laptop and wrote as fast as I could, hoping to fit in at least a few hours of sleep that night. I was barely even focusing on the words as I typed them; I kept thinking about how strange it was that my meeting turned into a beer with Professor Fry.
Bizarrely enough, I never forgot it. Looking back after all these years, after all this personal growth, I was appalled with myself. If running around naked on acid could bring me back in time to that night, I would have begged my past self to recognize how pivotal that hour or so with Peter Fry could have been. I would have told myself to cherish it, to actually show up to the Cultural Alliance meeting on Sunday. There have been several opportunities in my life for me to get vulnerable and relinquish my shame in front of someone who could never judge me. That time in college was one of them. It seems so simple. All I had to do was tell the truth. It took my whole life to learn what I could have learned that night when I was 19. Thirty years later, I’ve only just begun to make real friends, real memories, and expose my real self.
One day, my loneliness slapped me in the face when my world was crumbling around me. I needed a goddamn hug and I couldn’t even think of one person to call. I met with a psychiatrist who bit his nails, hoping to get a prescription. Instead he told me to make some friends. I didn’t know how. Eventually, I even thought about reaching out to Peter Fry; he was still alive and well. However, I assumed that he never saw the same significance in our evening at Clancy’s as I did. I was just another student, hardly memorable. Last week, I told my wife this story. She could tell it meant a lot to me, so she turned off the television. It was a sweet gesture and I appreciated her efforts, because even having someone seem like they’re listening to me felt like the greatest gift.
Happiness has only just become real, and I’m trying not to let myself die with the regret of never having made it to where I am now, earlier on in my life. I had never learned how to be vulnerable; I had never learned how to have a true relationship. I was the drowning duck all alone at the bottom of a Nalgene bottle, and Peter Fry could have saved me if only I had let him.