Short Story Wednesday: Neruda

Short Story Prompt” “Interpreter of Maladies” Jhumpa Lahiri

The first class of the second semester of American history was filling with college students and would be full soon. Michael’s eyes slowly looked around the classroom. A few faces he knew, but most he did not. There was one in particular he’d never seen before. Across the room in the corner was a blonde, an older student in her early thirties like himself. She had a pony tail and an orange sweater. When class was over, she gathered up her things and left quickly.

The next time he saw her in the class she wore green. Her hair hung loose and fell to her waist. She sat in the same corner alone and away from her nearest classmate. On her desk, her laptop and her books walled her against any intrusion from her fellow students.

After the class, he overcame his hesitation and walked over to her. She was pushing her laptop into her backpack. “Do you come here often?” Michael asked, pouring what little charm he could muster into his words.

She gave him a look that said she didn’t much care for his charm, then she said, “Not sure if I do, but my hair does. ”

Not able to come up with an entertaining comeback, Michael said nothing. His eyes followed her as she rushed out into the hallway. His mind raced for a way to stop her and engage her in a conversation. He had nothing. This was not a good way to start off a relationship with a woman he wanted to have a relationship with. Not a good way at all. This wasn’t even a good way to keep one going. Hopefully he would come up with something next time that gave him a half-ass chance.

The next time he walked into the class late. There she was over in the corner in her usual place, her laptop open, her books stacked on the desk. She typed fast on the keyboard. He dropped into the chair at the desk beside hers. She glanced over at him and gave him a leave-me-alone look. Her eyes matched the blue of her dress, then they went back to her laptop screen.

At the end of the class, he leaned over toward her, parted her books and asked, “Would you like to go dancing?”

She showed him her ring. “I have a husband.”

“We can take him along with us. He might even learn a few new dance steps. I’ve been told I’m a good teacher.”

She shook her head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Before he could come up with something for that comment, she was gone.

When he saw her again in class, he sat at the desk next to her again. Asked, “Just coffee then?” She was in her orange cashmere, her hair in its pony tail.

“Coffee always leads to sex,” she answered.

“Then don’t take your coffee with cream or sugar.”

“I only drink it black.” She opened her laptop cover.

“Never heard of black coffee leading to sex.”

“Now you have,” then she went to her notes. But this time she smiled.

At the end of the class, she turned to Michael. “You like my hair?” she asked.

“Very much.”

“That settles it. I’m cutting it and dying it green.” She seemed to be enjoying herself.

“Can I show you some trees?” he asked.

“What would you want to do that for?” she asked.

“So you’ll know what color green to dye your hair. You can tell from the leaves. Besides I like trees.”

She sighed the kind of sigh that said that she might enjoy the trees. She packed up her laptop, then said, “Let’s go. And no tricks. I’m on to you. Understand?”

“I thought you were,” he said, following her out of the classroom.

Walking out onto the campus lawn, he pulled up beside her and said,”We could be soul mates, you know.”

“I’m afraid not. My last three soul mates I killed off. And I don’t want to be guilty for a fourth death. I’m like Maggie on ‘Northern Exposure’. Guess that’s why they call me Maggie.”

Michael had a name for her now. “I’m Michael.”

A few days later, she was not in the classroom when he arrived. He went to their corner, unpacked his laptop and summoned up his notes for the class. The professor arrived and took his place at the podium.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I have some news,” he began. “Maggie Street, one of our students, will not be with us today. She is in the hospital. The police are holding her husband for questioning.”

A stunned silence swept through the class.

“It’s pretty clear what happened. Her husband came home last night. Took out a .45. Walked into the house. Shot her in the head. She’s in a pretty bad shape. Not sure if she will live or die. Give her your prayers if you do that sort of thing. Otherwise send some good thoughts her way.”

For the next week, Michael waited in the waiting room in the hospital everyday after class. Late in the week just before visiting hours were over, a woman in her late fifties walked over to him. Her hair was gray. “I’m Adele.” She offered him her hand.

He stood up, took her hand and said, “I’m Michael.”

“You know my daughter, Maggie?” she asked.

“I do. We are in the same class together.”

“Thank you for coming. I’ve seen you here every day for the last seven days.”

“How is she?” he asked.

“She woke up hungry as a bear this morning. The doctor says she will be fine.”

Michael went to say something, then stopped himself.

“She has no brain damage, thank God,” the woman continued. “With a lot of work, she will be back to normal. At least that is what the doctors say. It’s a miracle.”

Michael breathed his relief.

“Would you like to see her?”

“No,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure…you know, that she was going to be okay.”

“Well, she is. And thank you,” Maggie’s mother released his hand. “I have to get back to her.”

That night alone in his tiny apartment Michael wrote a poem, the first he’d written in a long time. He wrote:

“I dropped the poems into my bag.
They were Neruda, and only Neruda.
I went to show them to you,
but could not. I could not.

When I see your face,
I think Neruda.
When I see your hair, your lovely hair,
I think Neruda.
For you are the summation of a poem,
of all the poems of Pablo Neruda,
and only Neruda.

When I first laid eyes upon you,
it was like my first kiss.
It was as if I was reading
Neruda for the first time.”

Next Wednesday’s Prompt: “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” by Katherine Ann Porter.

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