Dark Doorways #7
So there I was on New Year’s Eve, clomping down the halls of the linguistics building, my silent hero next to me. Ridiculous. That was the word I was thinking. Who, after all, shows up on campus– to study– on New Year’s Eve? People with pain. People who have lost someone.
The only light in the edifice came from Swanson’s door, shining down the hallway like the beam of a rescue boat. Only I wasn’t drowning, not with my quiet companion. “Michael?”
His freakishly silent footsteps were eluding me as I stood in Swanson’s office glow. Somehow I didn’t feel like pursuing him in the darkness. The light felt too much like her. Like Mom.
“Sarah! Come in! It’s getting dark!”
“Can I play just five more minutes? I promise I’ll put my bike away.”
“Sarah Rose! There won’t be any light left! Come in now and we’ll read a book together. You get to choose it.”
Her fingernails were pink that night. It was a translucent shade that made you stare really hard at it to even tell what color it was, or if it even was a color. Like she was wearing no polish at all. Like her nails were naturally shiny. That was what I stared at while she read me some Roald Dahl book. We read them all, and so I have no idea which one it was that night. I only remember the fantastical dreams I would have until dawn.
But I never realized how shrouded in light my memory of that night was. The entire house was aglow, from Mom’s lace doilies to the cheap carpet that never came clean. Soft light from some unknown source landed on Mom’s face as she read to me about flying children, or whatever the story was that night. At least that is how I remembered it as I stood just inches from Swanson’s door.
I must have been shocked out of my reverie, hearing Swanson mumble something about not meaning to startle me. An angel stared back at me from behind his legs, an ethereal being with light falling around her just like… just like Mom.
“Sorry, Dr. Swanson. I was just stopping by to study for prelims a little. I didn’t mean to linger in front of your office. You haven’t seen Michael, have you?”
“No, not at all. Though I would be surprised to see him keep up with you.”
It was an odd thing to say, to hear your advisor rank you among your peers. Or was he talking more along the lines of energy and motivation? I wasn’t sure I cared. Between the memory of mom, the absence of Michael, and the lovely angel smiling up at me, there was little else that mattered at the moment.
“Come in, Sarah. We were making hot chocolate if you’d like one.”
“You can have some of my marshmallows.” The sweet little voice was exactly what you would picture coming from its source. Her blonde hair spilled over her shoulders like a spool of ribbon that someone let unravel. Silk. Silk framing porcelain skin and rosy cheeks.
“Oh, how can I resist?” It was sitting down to a tea party with my mom all over again. Doilies and everything. Swanson’s office had never been finer.
“Mr. Pig loves marshmallows too, so you’ll have to share.” Her small hands divided up the marshmallows evenly. You forget that children so young can do things like divide marshmallows evenly.
“This is my daughter, Gabriella. Gabriella, this is my student, Sarah.” Gabriella smiled shyly at me as Swanson whispered, “Her mom was generous enough to take her for Christmas and leave me New Year’s. Nice, huh?”
It was something, drinking hot chocolate with Mr. Pig in Swanson’s office. It was sure something.
“Say, Sarah, we’re having a few faculty members and grad students over tonight for a little shindig.”
Who says shindig?
“Yeah! I get balloons and grape juice, and I get to stay up late even though my bed time is eight!” Her soft hand rested on top of mine as she spoke, probably too excited to remember her shyness. The warmth from her was palpable, the life and fire that ran through her little veins. Were all children like this? I wanted her satin skin to stay on mine longer, to somehow consign some of her happiness over to me.
“So you’re welcome to come. We’d love to have you.” Swanson noticed Gabriella’s hand on mine, noticed this confluence of his two worlds.
Part of his thick brown curls fell into his face whenever he talked. It was distracting during his lectures, always wanting to wrap my own hair in spirals around my fingers. But that lone lock was such a comfort that morning, as if it was wrapping itself around my skin, coiling down to my feet.
“I, uh, I’m supposed to–”
“Don’t go on the boat, Será.” Gabriella tugged on my arm as I wondered how she knew about the cruise plan. My memory seemed cloudier than usual, like a fog from the boat was already oozing in. Maybe Michael had mentioned it after we entered the building. Maybe I had been distracted. Maybe she had been near the doorway on the first floor just minutes ago.
“Well, you, if you have plans, by all. By all means…” Swanson couldn’t finish a sentence to save his life. He could deconstruct the syntax of twenty different languages, but he stumbled with putting a complete thought together in his own.
When Gabriella pushed more marshmallows onto my plate from Mr. Pig’s, I knew I had a friend. I had trouble finding a reason to leave her luminescence, to refuse their invitation.
“Sarah, I thought I’d tell you also that you’ve been doing an excellent job in the program. I actually meant to meet with you before the break. There’s something I wanted to discuss with you.”
“We have a research fellowship for one doctoral student each year. You would be working with me, if you’re interested.”
Full tuition. Double the stipend each month. Was he joking?
“I, uh. Wow. I don’t know what to say. Of course I’m interested. What are the guidelines, I mean, what would would I be researching?”
“It would be part of the indigenous language study I started. You would be helping me in a lot of transcriptions, you’d have the opportunity to write, present at conferences with me. It’s renewable for up to two years. It might also give you that direction you’ve been needing for a dissertation topic.”
“I’m so, wow. I’m honored. How do I apply?” Exordium. It was a word Michael and I used whenever Swanson began his lectures. The beginning of an oration. The beginning of something. This fellowship could open doors for me.
“No, I nominate you. Basically, I just name the recipient. You’ve done superb work in the program, Sarah.” He paused in shuffling his paperwork, glancing up at me with an unexpected but genuine smile. “I know you were accepted to M.I.T. You chose me over Chomsky, eh?”
“Oh, yeah. I actually stayed to help my mom. She was really sick, chemo treatments…” Oh Mom.
“No, it’s–” It was what? Fine? Fine that my mom died? “It was over a year ago that she died.”
Mr. Pig’s hot chocolate spilled on my jeans as Gabriella played waitress. Her apologetic face and fearful look at her father– Swanson, a father!– showed all the signs of a well-behaved child.
“Oh, you’re fine, Gabriella. That’s why I wear jeans. Did you know that? I wear jeans so that if I spill my drinks, then the dark pants don’t show it.” I winked at her the way a creepy Santa winks at children in malls. But she leaned into me, accepting my creepiness, sort of a hug without arms.
“Dr. Swanson,” I began, because I could never call my professors by their first names, even as a doctoral student. What was his first name again? Vern? Vergil?
Right, Vadim. His mother was Russian. How could I forget from his lectures?
“Vadim, thank you so much. Of course I’ll do it. Just let me know what papers to sign.”
“So you’ll come to our party?” Gabriella’s face shot up from serving Mr. Pig his new hot chocolate. I was pretty sure stuffed animals should not have liquid pouring into their mouths, but perhaps Swanson– Vadim– relaxed the rules because of the poor custody arrangement.
“Gabi, no, we’re talking about her job for next year.”
“But you’ll come to our party?”
I could have told her the truth, that I had waited since the first day of grad school to be in Michael’s arms, that I couldn’t very well give that up now. But all I thought of as I looked at her was: Mom. She could have been my mom as a, what, four-year-old? She exuded light, just like Mom. She brought joy into a room, just like Mom.
Tears. Tears over hot chocolate with Mr. Pig. That’s what happens when you lose your mom.
“We’ll see, Gabriella, okay? Maybe your dad can give me the address and I’ll see if I can stop by for a little.”
“Just don’t get on the boat, Será. It’s very dark.”