She remembered the day clearly, looking up on the wall and seeing a D+ on the line next to her name for Constitutional Law. She also remembers years later seeing that same professor in Passaic County, Chancery Division.
She remembered his almost bald head on his too thin frame, smug, supporting the public interest group that would bring democracy to the mountain. She knew in that moment the right answer to his mantra.
But it was years before that, he said to her, “You’re like a monkey on my back.” And she sat there staring at some cheap print of constitutional parameters sitting on the wall, looking at this man who had placed a D+ on her efforts. She packed up her book bag, slammed her blue locker and called her father and told him that was it, she was leaving. And why not? Why wouldn’t he understand? When she handed him the entry she had done of the suicide note narrative, submitted after typed at 3:0O a.m. at the urging of her roommate, “there’s a fiction contest, deadline’s in the morning, submit something.” So she sat at the computer, a dot matrix printer, and typed a two page note and put it in an envelope and her roommate took it and placed it in a slot. A short time later she received a call, she had received second place. Only she knew that she hadn’t really tried. Then again, maybe she had, maybe she just let it go.
She stood in the kitchen of her father’s home sometime later, facing the end of her college stint, and showed her Dad the piece she had written that got a second place, her father read it and said, “Anyone can practice law, not anyone can do this.” He encouraged her to get a Masters in Creative Writing or Journalism, but she didn’t. Now it was eleven years later plus three years of law school, plus one year off, ok, so it was fourteen years, and she still had done nothing about it.
She was an idea girl without definition, she could complete nothing. She liked to believe it was because she saw all the sides of the same story, and on a good day, a charitable day, that would line up and be true but within the parameters of normal society, that would be procrastination, the inability to complete, to have true vision, to see and produce.
So she packed up her bag and was ready to head to the train station, the rest of her grades were absolutely fine for the first semester where she was one of the only day law students actually working on what was perceived as a cutting edge law brief of economic loss rather than sitting there and reading her text during the study break before first semester finals. The overnight stints at the diner with the student drunks were an afterthought.
She picked up the phone in the hall before heading out, managing to actually get her father on the phone, she wonders today how much he remembers, does he remember what she does? But she pictured him there, behind the glass topped desk, set on a slight angle, flanked by two windows in a nondescript but expensive town out in the boondocks as other lawyers would later describe it and rue the day they had. Had by the country bumpkin. But she saw him there, his cuffs still battling with his wrists, fasted tight by cuff links, he had not as yet lost the gold plated Mickey Mouse cuff links she and her brother had bought him on a long ago trip to Disney World, so she saw him sitting there, pages thrown in front of him, lines holding, other attorneys at that time working for him, hanging on his word, envious and contemptuous at the same time, they knew they didn’t have his essence but wanted to be around him all the same, and she saw the secretary, one of them walk in to get his attention, waiting silently as he pontificated on the phone, gesturing, she must not have had to try so hard because after all he actually picked up the line, she wasn’t put on eternal hold, told to try again later. She told him, choking, to the master, the man who aced night law school with two small children working in a garden apartment and working three jobs, part-time in Newark without gloves in the dead of winter following the Newark Riots, a white man sent to do was it a dirty or a clean job, he had a breifcase full of checks. It is only now she realizes that she never asked him if they were given what they were due. He reached for the phone and there she sat captured, how would life panned out if she had not dialed him first as she always did? Years later, faced with an even more prophetic situation, his wisdom she would regret to the end of her days when she felt he was more than human and had all the answers. She would wonder how life would have played out differently if she could have stood on her own two feet. If she could have blown air into the soles of her Doc Martens-if she could have for a moment pretended she was Marilyn Monroe and not cared who watched. But she called him as she did then and continued to do for more than a decade until she realized it was no longer fair to either of them.
“I got my grades.”
“I got a D in constitutional law.”
“How about the rest?”
“I did fine.”
“Ok, it’s first semester, this is what the books are written about, it happens.”
“I’m leaving this isn’t for me, I’m going.”
“But you don’t understand, a D, I did the best I could, I studied, I was interested.”
“No, you don’t understand yet, it’s subjective.”
“It depends what mood he’s in, what’s going on.”
“A D is not a D, a D is only a reflection of a moment.”
Ok so that’s not how he actually said it, but that’s how I now take it to mean… is that I was no Lady Liberty, torn between the law of liberty and the perversion of truth.
Ok, ok, so now what? I want to leave, I don’t fit in here, yes, I listened to you, I didn’t shave my head like I wanted to before entering law school, you said, wait, you will be different enough.
I did not yet understand the mortar of those walls, the pacts made between generations to keep the money in the family no matter what the means, I should have understood, we were not wealthy, we were not poor, we were that weird blend of still new Irish immigrants that knew what it was to come from nothing.
So I agreed with him, I didn’t walk down to the Peninsula of Newark, that strange hub where the trains come and come and leave from anywhere and everywhere with a whole race of people, generations stuck in place with millions traveling through, finding a way in and out when the others sat there in rot with dashed dreams, graduate programs, languages, wealthy families and friends left behind. Now they had the concrete, the dirty sidewalks, the people who had so despaired that they could not even respect those that lived with them, on the same streets, sharing the same fates because none of them wanted to to resemble their neighbor.
So I agreed. I would not take the train back to Hoboken or the City, I would not. I would put my books back in the locker, “locker”, oh, I would put my books back in the locker and agree to go see my professor.
He asked me why I was a monkey on his back.
I had the sheer pleasure of kicking his and his colleagues’ butts years down the road.