You’re Kind of An Asshole

19 Dec

New Letters

I had a professor in college whose claim to fame, as it were, was having been published a couple of times in New Letters.

She was a mousy, skittish thing with black pinpoint eyes and greasy grey hair who was nice enough to give me an “A” despite my work being transparently misanthropic, embarrassingly confessional, and chronically overdue.

And she said something to me, once, that I will never forget.

It was the last day of class and I had decided to duck out early, to get a head start on my winter break bender. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to go out and get drunk, or that I was bored with that day’s lecture. It was simply that I felt like my work was done there, and I didn’t see any reason to carry on with the charade of being a student any longer. I pulled a lot of that shit back then.

What I did not plan on was my professor excusing herself from class and following me out into the hall.

“Do you know what I did this weekend?” she said, as if idly striking up a conversation with a colleague in the faculty lounge. “I went to a party. All the department heads were there. Dr. Grecco was singing your praises.”

(Dr. Grecco was a professor of British and Irish literature who was, for all intents and purposes, my academic mentor. He held two Ph.D’s from the Yale School of Drama, was a rock star in the field of literary criticism, and was an accomplished playwright in his own right; his third play, The Orientals, produced by the Marin County Theater Company, was a minor hit in the Seventies. He was also an abrasive drunk, an impossible-to-please critic, and one of the most physically unattractive men I have ever encountered. He had an absolute gift for making me feel ridiculously small, only to boost my confidence by pushing me to reach for greater heights with my fiction. On one memorable occasion, fed up with my habitual lateness to class, he interrupted his lecture and declared: “You have a very casual attitude towards your education, Mr. Barbieri. You play your cards close to the vest, but you’re holding a bum hand. You think you’re cool, but you’re a goof. You think you’re goddamn J.D. Salinger, but you aren’t that good. Yet.”

It was Dr. Grecco who single-handedly steered me away from writing screenplays, towards writing short fiction, by suggesting I enter a short story in the Edward J. Nichols Writing Contest. Now, for some inexplicable reason, the professor of my advanced fiction writing class, who was on the jury of said award committee, was stopping me in the hall to discuss Grecco’s surprisingly high-flown opinion of me.)

I was uncomfortable with this conversation. I still had not learned how to gracefully field a compliment. I’m fairly certain I reeked of weed and rum. I definitely smelled like something.

“I’ve gone over your transcript,” she was saying. “Talked to some of your professors. You’ve done some good work here. But you’ve also been kind of an asshole.”

I screwed up my face, did my best to appear offended and bewildered by the comment … but I knew what she meant. For three years I’d been skirting by on talent and not much else. In choosing my curriculum, the only qualifications I ever considered were open seats towards the back of class and a start time past 2PM. Even so, I was always the best writer in every class; unfortunately, I didn’t have a work ethic to speak of; and I never once participated in any workshop discussion. There were whole weeks when I didn’t show up to class at all.

“I want you to know that I read your submission for the writing contest. I will not be recommending it for the award. But I’m impressed with it.”

“Well … thanks.”

She seized my forearm. Dug her thumb in between the bones. I was sure this weird, ancient woman would snap my arm in half like a stick. There was enormous strength in her grip.

“You know, there are a lot of smart people out there. Hard workers. And they don’t go to Penn State. They go to Princeton. They’re Rhodes scholars. I just want you to know what you’re up against.”

I forced myself to look her in the eye. For some bizarre reason, I was terrified that she would try to make out with me. I pictured her sagging tits and varicose veins; my nose nuzzled into her turkey-gobbler neck. I would have gone along with it out of sheer terror; in deference to the draw of her authority. I was kind of turned on by the idea, to be honest.

“You can do this writing thing, if you want to,” she said, still holding my arm, “but I wouldn’t wish that life on anyone.”

And then she simply let go of my arm, turned and walked back into the classroom, as if nothing had ever happened.

*  *  *

It was with this professor in mind that, ten years later, I decided to enter two short stories in a fiction contest sponsored by New Letters. I think in my mind I wanted to prove to her, and to myself, that all those hours spent goofing around in her class had not gone to waste; that I was serious about this nonsense; that I was cut out for The Life; that I had the stomach for the writing bug. And maybe she would see my work in the magazine where, as a struggling author herself, she’d found a tiny measure of success and satisfaction; and remember our conversation in the hall; and be, if not proud, mystified.

*  *  *

“The End of Everything Good” was eventually published by the Berkeley Fiction Review (Issue #29) and nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

“Fiends” was published by the now-defunct Kennesaw Review.

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