Sunday Pages: "You Too Can Graduate in Three Years With a Degree in Contextual Semiotics"
A short story by Sean Beaudoin, from his collection "Welcome Thieves"
|Greg Olear||Apr 5, 2020|| 16||3|
This past week was the most successful in the brief history of PREVAIL. I mention this not to blow my own horn, but to acknowledge your generous and enthusiastic support. I’ve tried to respond to every comment and every email I receive. I want to follow back everyone on Twitter who is on my mailing list. If my mother knew how bad I’ve been about thank-you notes, she would be appalled. So let me take this time to express my gratitude to you, Dear Reader. I draw strength and resolve from your kindness, and I thank you for that.
This week’s “Sunday Pages” is a short story from Welcome Thieves, a collection written by my dear friend Sean Beaudoin. He is one of the other co-editors at The Weeklings, and he’s smart and funny as hell and has incredible taste in music (even if he makes fun of me for liking Billy Joel). He also wrote this, which was pretty damned prescient.
Thanks again—and enjoy!
You Too Can Graduate in Three Years With a Degree in Contextual Semiotics
First, tell all your friends there's no fucking way you're going to college. Drunkenly claim Nabokov is all the education you'll ever need. Hoover up stares from girls with bongs between their legs, girls with gloss on their lips, girls going to state schools, already accepted, already pitying you. Ache for them, badly.
Refuse to shake the principal's hand during graduation. Unzip your gown, show your bare chest and silver necklace. Take off in a '76 LeMans the next day, still high from the farewell party, the one where your friend’s mother cornered you and stuck her tongue in your mouth and then everyone in the kitchen laughed and threatened to call social services.
Weave down I-95 through Jersey and Delaware. Run out of gas in Baltimore. Figure what the hell.
Find a studio with a bathtub next to the fridge. Find a job at a restaurant with all-you-can-eat ribs. Be astonished by how much better you’re treated than the black busboys, who are not boys but men, who’ve been there untold years. Be astonished that no one even bothers to pretend or complain. Think that it's sort of like how your grandmother always loved you more than your cousin and everyone knew it, even Santa.
Don’t miss Rick and Amy. Don’t miss Todd. Don’t miss Todd fucking around on Janet and Janet calling you after a couple wine coolers. Don’t miss Dylan, who’s waiting tables, don’t miss Sarah who’s waiting to hear from that college that makes you wait, don’t miss Fitz, who’s sitting on the plaid couch where he will happily wait forever.
Rue the curse of having reasonable, loving parents, how their lack of animus and neglect will forever limit you as an artist.
Volunteer to serve food to the homeless on weekends. Roll dirty soup pots across dirty parking lots. Secretly hate the hippie in charge, who bitches through his red beard and stew-dripped sandals, who yells at feral Rastas and drunken runaways for not recycling their spoons.
At the edge of the park talk to a sad-eyed Russian girl who’s actually bubbly and full of light. Listen to her lecture you about Moldova and how only a moron or American wouldn’t know where it was. Hold her hand even though you met twenty-two minutes ago. Be amazed how cool-weird she looks in a black bodysuit and green sunglasses. Tell her you've never really had a girlfriend even if it isn't true. Think it makes you sound sensitive even though you're an emotionless cipher who flashes glimpses of humanity only when marinated in cheap beer. Pretend that as long as you’re an intellectual, the sort of guy who can identify a Kandinsky or the frenzied strains of Glenn Gould, who reads three books a week even if two are crime fiction, then it’s okay.
Kiss her beneath a tree. Think even her lips seem vaguely Soviet. Keep calling her Olga, even though that’s not her name. Be pleasantly surprised that she tastes like coffee but not cigarettes. Buy her lunch. Buy her dinner. Buy her flat beer that costs fifty cents a mug at a bar called Murph's filled with elderly Jamaican men. Be amazed that they don't card you, even though you're barely eighteen. Think you’ve made friends and forged valuable inroads between cultures by dialing up five bucks' worth of Delfonics on the jukebox.
Follow Olga home that night. Find out that home is really the office of some non profit that helps return Israelis to Israel. Pull a battered suitcase from behind a desk. Listen to her brush her teeth in the water fountain. Lie on a couch sagging from a thousand passport-and-visa-awaiting asses. Let her get on top. Whisper her real name, Nadezhda, over and over like a talisman.
Tell the other busboys nothing happened even though Daryl says he can “smell it plain as day,” which he probably can, since the office had no shower.
See Nadezhda every night. Go to shows, to movies, to bars. Help her find an apartment. Overhear her roommates mock her accent. Refrain from calling them assholes. Don't do the dishes as a form of protest. Let in the cat that hangs out in the alley, shut it in that blond girl’s room. Sit on the floor and watch Nadezhda take a nap while two different copies of Our Bodies, Ourselves bookend the collected Kathy Acker.
At the end of a shift get tipped out a dollar by the waitress with the ponytail pulled through her Orioles cap and decide maybe college is the thing after all. Buy a Barron's Guide to American Universities, massively alphabetized, and be bored before you're even through the A's. Apply to three colleges that start with B, and also Cornell.
Get accepted to two.
Let your father pretend that's not why he started talking to you again. Decide to major in film. Let your father pretend that's not why he's no longer talking to you again.
Have hoarse and whispery conversations with Nadezhda about maybe coming too. Rub her wrist through the hole in her sweater, wipe her nose, promise no matter what to be this close and this chaste, endlessly on the other end of a phone. Vow to disprove distance as a theory, across a thousand miles feel her ghost stomach pressed nakedly against yours. Promise to exchange mad letters, inexhaustible sentences, fragments of brilliance, declarations of proclamations of edicts, a compact signed each time in blood or even deeper.
Secretly decide that you want to go alone. That there’s no way you’re showing up in an unexplored city, the blank canvas of a new campus, saddled with something long-term. Love her, lust for her, think the word “besotted” without laughing at yourself and still fail to deny that loving her, lusting for her, thinking the word "besotted" without laughing at yourself is a knife, a cleft into the meat of you that makes you vulnerable, that makes you want to run barefoot in the dark and sweaty heat in one direction until you are at least two atlas pages away. Or 12 percent less a melodramatic asshole.
The night before you go listen to Nadezhda cry during Moonlighting. Be smoochy, then resigned, then annoyed. Her messy hair. Her red, crumpled face. Say no, you’re right, it’s not funny. Volunteer to grab dinner, come back to find her gone. Eat all the fries on principle. Fail to produce a clever relationship analogy about empty ketchup packets. Write it on a napkin anyway. Call her four times, no answer, no answer, no answer, angry roommate. Threaten an ass kicking you could deliver but won’t. Get more than a little drunk.
School. Take a slate of production classes. Quickly come to terms with what horseshit they are. Immediately accept that not a single person in the department will ever actually make a film. Immediately accept that all the professors gave up on L.A. after a few years, never did anything but unfinish screenplays and complain about traffic, moved home to teach nineteen-year-olds the rudiments of slapping together four minutes of underexposed film of a naked sophomore wearing a leather mask and call it a degree.
Switch majors. To Russian lit. After a week decide it’s too grim, too Gulag-y. Snag the last spot in Intro to Syntactics and Pragmatics. Start quoting Roland Barthes. Use “Saussurean” in a sentence at a party. Fail to connect with Derrida over the course of six hundred pages. Connect to Coover in a single sentence. Question a friend’s signification. Vow to name your first daughter “Ferdinand.” Pretend to read Wittgenstein in the caf. Wear a beret, discard it. Wear scarves, discard them. Earring in, earring out. Crib a paper on Bertrand Russell’s years-long ménage a trois as it relates to sexual pragmatism in mathematical empiricism. Graduate.
Move to San Francisco, don’t get hired at an anarchist bookstore, don’t get hired by a video game developer, don’t get hired at a magazine to do rudimentary layout, and especially don't bother to install one of the Netscape mailers that arrive on your doorstep every day, under the impression that ignoring the Internet is probably what the New York Dolls would do, a vital political statement but with 30 percent less eyeliner.
Decide chat rooms are a symbol for death. Decide cell phones are an emblem for death. Decide computers are a representation of death. Decide television is an allegory for death.
Two jobs, then a third. Bosses. Girls. That tall one with all the hair, later a Thai who likes Iggy Pop. Pin the arm back onto a suit. Go to a friend’s funeral, a guy who drank too much and fell down, randomly hit his head on the cement next to the grass next to the keg. Have your boots resoled. Pick out a new car, listen to the pitch, argue about the invoice, sign the papers, drive it away from the grinning Ukrainian salesman.
Send Nadezhda the money for a bus ticket. Let her yawn, act like she’s considering. Is she seeing someone? Maybe. Do they matter? Whose business is it? Plead then cajole then beg. In begging find something you didn’t know was there, a willingness to be humiliated (just another modality) and also not give a shit (purely lexical and without true meaning). Listen to her say yes. Melt with umwelt.
A hug at the busy station. People streaming by. Clock the businessmen who roll their eyes, couples who elbow and remember when. Wait for the inevitable “Get a room!” The moron’s guffaw. Say nothing when Nadezhda stiffens. Say nothing when she pretends to be busy with her suitcase, leaves your roses on a bench.
Go to tourist spots you’re also seeing for the first time. Secretly think the cable car and Alcatraz are cool but pretend they’re dumb. End up giving some tourist-dad the finger, his crying kids. Have no answer when she asks what’s wrong with you. Over dinner you can’t afford, get in an argument about Dave Eggers. Order the most expensive dessert just on principle, leave it untouched. Order cheap wine, one bottle and then another, don’t leave a drop.
Be yelled at while leaning against a brick wall.
Apologize. Admit you know you’re damaged. Make a joke about how Black Flag has an album called Damaged, so maybe it’s okay? Laugh at her not laughing. Mention that you’re writing a novel and that’s why you’ve been so preoccupied. Be startled by the pity in her eyes.
Have sex in the kitchen. Sort of wish you didn’t. Ask why women always have to cry after. Sort of wish you hadn’t.
Her on the futon, you on the couch.
In the morning, Nadezhda’s partially rehearsed lecture about all the ways you’ve changed. Soak it in over eggs Benedict at a place called La Flora, your coffee refilled by sassy waiters who make sympathetic faces behind her back.
Drop Nadezhda off at the bus station, help load the same battered Samsonite into the hold. Aim for a rousing, theatrical goodbye for the people already in their seats, and deliver. Whisper “I love you,” in her ear, watch the people watching be surprised by her laugh.
Call a month later, be told by some guy with a voice like a flexed quad that she’s not there anymore.
“Said she was bored.”
“Decided to move to Jerusalem.”
Spend that winter imagining an earnest kibbutz. Working in the fields, elaborate feasts, everyone in torn fatigues and sexy skirts. Dodging Scuds and making out behind piles of organic kale, idly leafing through the Pentateuch in the hottest hours. Flirt with the idea of adopting some kind of faith—in her, in human nature, in a bearded divinity floating on a gilded cabbage leaf, a god who loves the humble and hates random masturbators, a god who deigns to bless your inevitable gentile/goy son, a boy who becomes a man who becomes a great leader that drives some tribe into the sea at the end of a cutlass, but not the Palestinians, because, frankly, they’ve got some legitimate complaints despite what Zeki said around the fire the other night.
Stop drinking, get a better job. Write three chapters of a roman a clef about zombie symbology, think it’d be better as a graphic novel. Wish for the nine-hundredth time you could draw. Take pictures that will never be famous or hung in the Whitney. Write poems that will never be read aloud or adjudged remotely poetic. Volunteer at a pirate store that’s really a front for teaching low-income kids to read. Meet other men with similar politics, meet other girls with clingy red dresses, have other complaints. Stare into a series of serious eyes, plunge between a series of unfamiliar legs, by the third date fail to be the person you could be for them if only you were different.
Lie on a recently reupholstered couch with a woman you don’t love. Watch Friends and the commercials between Friends while eating rigatoni.
Become a manager, button the top one. Fire people who don’t realize you’re actually pretty cool it’s just that someone has to enforce the rules. Get another tattoo, worse than the third. Buy an insanely expensive bike, stare at the broken lock on the sidewalk. Visit Texas, win a distance-spitting contest. Smoke PCP by mistake, feel irreparably insane for eight days, not so much on the ninth. Bury your parents within six months of each other. Argue with an uncle, shine off an aunt. Decide that no one can be told anything, that the world is a grand bargain, a fraudulent transaction, a complicity of bullshit.
Wake in the middle of the night, sure she’s thinking of you. Buy a ticket, get on a plane. Spend a month with a backpack and a water bottle searching the fertile crescent for the girl no one has ever heard of, the woman no one has ever seen.
Float on your back in the Red Sea. Get tan and then brown. Drink with on-duty women, armed men, dance in small, sweaty clubs until dawn and then noon and then midnight again.
Show Nadezhda’s picture around hotel lobbies, in bars, in spots where the homeless are being fed.
Tear up your visa, which expired anyway. Find an apartment, date a corporal, kill off another year. Turn thirty, something you finally have a diploma for.
Have a child. Then another.
Push a stroller, buy ice creams, laugh with bearded dads in tiny parks, always on the lookout.
Even ten years later, as you drive Doron to school, as you sit through Katya’s violin recital, as you stand alone in a tiled hallway during intermission, close your eyes and count to three, positive you will turn around and Nadezhda will be there, at the water fountain, chin wet, smiling.
Sean Beaudoin (@SeanBeaudoin) enjoys typing about himself in the third person, as if some underfed intern were writing his bio. He is the author of the YA novels Going Nowhere Faster, Fade To Blue, You Killed Wesley Payne, The Infects, and Wise Young Fool. Sean’s stories and articles have appeared in numerous publications, including The Onion, the San Francisco Chronicle, Glimmer Train, Salon, and Spirit—the in-flight magazine of Southwest Airlines. He has since been awarded free cocktail peanuts for life. Sean is also one of the founding editors of The Weeklings. Welcome Thieves is his first story collection, and marks his transition to adult literature.