By Chris Mares
“That’s enough about me,” Meredith said, putting down her tea, “I don’t want to think about it all the time. What about you?”
The Oakes Room in the library was high ceilinged, the walls wood paneled. There was a studious air. A smattering of students. Afternoon light streaming through the windows.
Richard didn’t like to talk about himself. But Meredith didn’t want to talk about her divorce any more. About life in Cairo. Her little son. How love had turned sour.
“I love the teaching,” Richard said. It came out without him thinking.
“You really do, don’t you?” Meredith smiled and her eyes softened.
Richard was thinking about Meredith. Abused. Vulnerable. Confused. Scared. Fleeing Cairo.
And here they were. In the university library. In the still of the afternoon.
“I have this one class. Personal writing. About eight students. They write about what they want. For as long or as little as they like. I float round. Sit with each of them. Make corrections. Organize things. Give new phrases, etc. They all work at their own level. I see each student about three times a class. It’s a writing class and I have to tell them to stop writing at the end of class.”
“That’s funny,” Meredith said. She knew.
“Yes,” Richard said, “it really works. They see their improvement. Get invested. Some of them start writing before class starts.”
All the tension had gone from Meredith’s face. Her son was in day care.
“Go on,” she said.
Richard hesitated but she wanted him to talk. She wanted to listen. She’d spoken enough.
“There’s this one student. J we call him. New. From Korea. Couldn’t say a word when he arrived. Couldn’t write a sentence. But he has this gentle energy. For the first three classes he would always say, ‘Nice to meet you,’ when I came into class. When he realized he should say, ‘see you’ and not ‘meet you’, he was so pleased. He laughed. His whole face lit up. And last week, in the last class of the week I said, ‘Have a great weekend,’ and he looked at me. Right at me. And smiled. And in front of the class he said, ‘I’ll miss you.’”
“Sweet,” Meredith said.
Richard nodded. Glanced at Meredith. Her blue green eyes, red hair, white, Irish skin. She would have been exotic in Cairo. Leered at. Touched. In the rush of traffic. And the heat of the markets.
“The thing is, he started writing. Complete sentences. Clear. Well organized. And interesting. About the bus that took him to military service. His mother crying. His loneliness. The training. He was in some elite unit. In the DMZ. Face to face with the North Koreans. Close enough to talk.”
Richard paused. Thinking of J in the classroom. Such a gentle and serene man.
Meredith’s eyes were expectant.
“There’s something about him,” Richard said, “He’s a pastor and the CEO of an electrical company. He could be twenty-five or forty. It’s hard to say. But this gentle energy he has. It’s unique.”
Richard looked up. Caught Meredith’s eyes. She was looking at him. In the way women do sometimes. Right at him. At his soul.
“And today he wrote about the time a member of his unit wanted to take a picture of his friends in the DMZ. To send home. He had them line up. Then he asked them to move to frame his picture and one of them stood on a mine. Twelve men. Five were killed. The rest lost limbs. Blown off. Blood everywhere. And J was typing this. As I watched. The letters appearing on the page. J so tranquil. The classroom so still. Other students writing about shopping or practicing with essay prompts.”
Richard paused. There was more he could say.
Meredith glanced at her phone.
She looked at Richard. Smiled.
“It’s great that they share like that. He might have never told anyone before, you know. It’s like therapy.”
Richard had never thought of it in that way. But it was. And the beauty of it was the trust. The opening up.
“I should go,” Meredith said.
Richard wanted to apologize for going on about his class.
It was his Englishness.
But he didn’t. He was learning not to.
He didn’t need to apologize.
Meredith had needed to talk to someone. She was recently back from Cairo.
Fleeing with her son.
And here they were in the paneled Oakes Room.
In the afternoon still.
With Richard describing J. Writing in English.