Marta breathed thanks for an empty seat. At this hour the busses were humid with vigorous student bodies pouring from campus. The boisterous chatter—of parties or concerts to attend, planned trips to ski slopes or white sand beaches, as though they were not harried undergrads subsisting on instant ramen and shoestring budgets so much as carefree Gamma Phi Beta initiates and football-hurling beer pong players filling scenes in an American frat house comedy—crowded the airwaves and made Marta feel depleted, lacking some vital genetic characteristic that would assure a place at the coveted centre, one of those smiling tall girls whose cascading, photographer-ready hair and beguiling doe eyes were accomplishment enough, a surefire means to a ringed finger resting on the social pulse, not to mention a comfortable end.
She reached into her bag, faded black canvas and advertising a bookseller squeezed out of business and replaced by a clothing chain years ago. The CD player she withdrew was so obsolete it might well have been a bulky 8-track player or a gramophone complete with wooden trumpet speaker. No matter. Marta suspected that pulling a mandolin or a lute from the tote would cause no huge stir. Students fully expected an eccentric penchant for the quaint and outmoded to accompany their professors’ willful scorn for ephemeral styles and electronic indispensables. Bow ties, clock brooches, fountain pens, lisle stockings, wing tip brogues, briar pipes, Peter Pan collars over well-aged woolens, a closet of sturdy tweed: a professor’s prerogative, one that went hand in hand with the lifelong dedication to the Museum of Irrelevance, reading fading words bound within obscure books.
Marta caught expressions—indifferent, uncomfortable, at times quizzical—on the faces of students dropping by the office with concerns over grades or assignments. Eyes eventually settling on the imposing shelves of books, they would sprout a genuine frown, a diplomatically unasked question completely sincere: “A reclusive career tending to forgotten grave markers in an infinite text necropolis: why would anyone choose that?” Marta was also prepared to admit to an element of projection in the mind-reading attempt: a truly accurate breakdown of student reaction might be “Huh?,” with soupçons of “Why?” and “Whatever.”
Marta empathized to a degree. Any thought of Business, the nebulous career plan for the landslide majority of freshmen students, inspired only an involuntary moue.
“Miss Spëk?” Marta bristled. Miss Spëk had been summoned, a familiar dun spectre. Dr. Spëk had been designed as the estimable replacement.
Turning to look up, Marta’s smile was automatic. “Yes…?”
The girl, pretty and soft-spoken, was a stranger. She crouched, now able to converse eye to eye.
“I’m in your Po-Co Lit class. Queenie, um, Queenie Liu.”
“Right. Was there something…?” Marta studied the black ensemble of layers, ruffles, and lace, recognizing the Kuro Lolita look, a subset of an exotic micro-trend on a campus otherwise clothed in surfer, snowboarder, and yogi brands.
“Oh, right. Sorry. Is it okay to talk now? Here?” She cupped her ears.
Marta slipped the earphones into the tote. “Sure, Mahler can wait. If you’d prefer it, we can set up an appointment.”
“It’s just that, well, the semester’s been like really crazy. How do you feel about extensions?”
“How do I feel about them? In general?” When student imprecision did not grate on her sensibilities, it sparked pedantry.
“No. I mean, well, I mean, like, can I get, you know, an extension?”
“And you know the deal, Queenie: ‘Extensions can be granted for legitimate medical reasons.’ Every student has a crazy semester, so professors tend to shy away from anything without medical legitimacy.” Marta fully intended to give that student what she desired, but was waiting to hear what ingenuity the student would air, what species of tragic circumstance she’d cough up, or how complicated a tale she’d unfurl.
“Well, to be honest. My boyfriend is in this band, Dramaturd.”
“No. It’s a deathcore band.”
Marta supposed the student expected a disturbed reaction or parental consternation. She said nothing.
“Anyway, I’ve been writing songs with him. You know.” Widened eyes conveyed, “Boys will be boys.”
Oh, the sweet bond of sisterhood, spurred on by love to make altruistic sacrifices for our men, Marta thought. But how unexpected that the student would try to bridge the generational gap and join arm in arm with that long procession of women who’d sacrificed so much to clasp a place of honour with the opposite sex.
“How about a week?”
“Agreed. One work week. Remind me about it on Monday, in class.”
“Thanks so much, Miss—”
“Doctor. But please call me Marta.”
“Okay, Marta.” Strategic friendliness accomplished, the student returned to a friend. Marta was relieved too. Despite the front and centre lecture hall career, she didn’t count people skills as a natural or well-developed talent; wherever the milk of human kindness might originate, her supply was a tad erratic.
Though transit experiences had taught her what to expect, Marta flipped awkwardly though folders of ungraded assignments; having them alphabetized before her stop would be handy. The student chatted across the crowded aisle.
“No way, I have an all or nothing relationship with chocolate,” she said. Marta assumed that Queenie was replying to an offer.
“What if it’s in baked goods? What about hot chocolate?” The friend’s tone was incredulous.
“I’m hardcore against it.”
“No way, that’s like extremely will power-y. It’s totally brutal.”
Surrendering to cramped conditions, Marta slid the folders away and scanned trivial articles in a throwaway newspaper—pausing only to savour “caustic and insolent,” the phrase serving to sum up and pillory a far-off artist.
For the final ten blocks Marta stared out at the familiar retail corridor of the route.
[That's the chapter's second part. The final installment of Ch. 1? Soon.]