“‘My love life is like a rollercoaster…’” I mumbled. The heater in my office hummed louder than my voice. It was turned off but rattled just the same. I sweated and a drip fell on my podium. “That’s a cliché. It’s a tired metaphor and image that we read and it tells what your attitude is instead of showing us. At one point it was fresh and interesting, but through overuse, it’s gotten worn out. It’s no longer colorful.” I told Elli Chiarella, a senior in my Writing Fiction class. “You either need to find a new image or to be specific about the rollercoaster. Like ‘My love life is like Thunder Mountain at Disney. It’s funny and cute but just before the big hill, the ride breaks down for an hour and I’m stuck in the backseat behind two fatties, listening to the kitschy banjo music on repeat till the ride gets going—everyone’s miserable and bored at that point. Then we head up the hill and it’s exciting again, but we’re only looking forward to the end. And when we reach the climax and plummet, it’s amazing no one dies.’ Something like that. That’s probably wordy, but you get the idea. Give me a specific rollercoaster. You can use Thunder Mountain if you want.”
The summer class met once a week for lectures, then I met each student for an hour a week. We’d stand at the podium and I’d mumble through the kid’s story. When we came to an error, grammatical or stylistic, I told them what was wrong with it and gave an alternative to show them what was good writing. I didn’t insist they use my examples; it was fine that they had their own voice; however, I would not allow them to label their awkward, vague, trite, wordy, boring sentences as style. I gave them a foundation of good writing. The tender students cried, but like my mom used to say, “The more you cry, the less you’ll pee,” as she whacked my butt again with the rod.
Elli was a senior and this class would’ve served her better as a freshman. I feared it was too late to beat bad habits from her writing. But she was eager and smelled nice, like lavender, vanilla, and strawberries.
Having just come from a workout, she wore black Spanx under terrycloth shorts; they were very short and left cellulite on her thick thighs exposed. She minded it greatly; her classmates ignored her butt till it was pants-weather; professors, the ones I’d caught staring, enjoyed her shape and jiggle.
She was a cheerleader and till she had written a story about cheerleaders, I hadn’t known our college had the sport. I never attended football or basketball events and no one ever mentioned the cheerleaders. But she was one of them. A captain even. And she wrote about them. “Breana Dee was a pretty bitch. She was a slut too.”
I suggested, “Don’t use the stereotype of a cheerleader, use an actual cheerleader. Use a real person. Use a teammate. Use a friend.”
“But the cheerleaders I know are sluts. Some even tell about their professors…” She was a smart girl. She greatly believed in equality and treated everyone that way. And so, I was privy to Breana Dee’s sexual adventures with professor Dier over at Drake College, our rival.
“’She was a pretty bitch,’” I mumbled again. I scribbled notes on her page. “Show this to the audience before stating it. Describe some faults, maybe focus on physical features. Be a bit petty. ‘She had cellulite, a big nose, crooked and yellow teeth, scabbed-over acne, ten pounds of make-up, a hunched back, no hips, no boobs, no butt, squat legs, cankles, scraggly fingernails. She shopped at Wal-mart for her prom dress.’ Then you can ‘She was a bitch.’ It’ll show faults in your narrator, like maybe the narrator is jealous of the attention she gets. Maybe the narrator’s a bit vindictive and shallow. These aren’t capital offenses so readers won’t hate the narrator. And if the narrator transforms and the two become friends, then you get redeemed by the reader for having a heartwarming end. If Breana really is a bitch, show it and you’ll get sympathy from readers.”
Elli had on a sports tank-top, the kind that smooshed her sweaty boobs upwards. They looked big today, but in regular shirts they looked bigger. It was hard to tell their size with every Victoria’s Secret commercial promising to add two cup-sizes.
My pen trailed off the page and I inked the wood panel on my podium. I put my pen, and eyes, back on her paper. “Here, you write ‘The small, messy room…’ It’s too colorless. How small is it? Give me some dimensions or an image of what couldn’t fit inside. My office is eight by eight, slightly smaller than the single dorm rooms in Leeds.”
“How do you know?” she asked. She wandered off, running a finger along the spines of my critical sources. She was looking for secondary material on books she had read. She stopped on a book about Oliver Twist. “I’ve cited this before! Did you know he helped house whores? I got a B on the paper.” She sounded bummed by it. She bent over to grab the book. She had terrible focus.
I wrote on her paper “More description of the ‘small, messy room.’” I told her, “I lived in Leeds when I was a student here. See my walls lined with bookcases of novels and secondary material? Those plus my antique writing desk and chair, my computer desk, my podium, there’s hardly room for the two of us. I keep the trash can in the hall or else we’d be squished together.”
“You can bring it in.” She put the book back on the shelf and stood upright. She came back to the podium to read my note. Again, she pressed against my arm. When she realized she was doing it, she apologized. “I don’t mind being cramped.”
“Some of you students never learned about deodorant. I’d rather keep the trash bin outside so I have a breathing room.”
She subtly lowered her nose to her bare shoulder and whiffed. A speck of glitter went up a nostril.
“Not you. You smell—” like vanilla, lavender, and strawberries “—fine. Neutral. But do you see how those details give a better image than just ‘a small, messy room?’”
She exaggerated a nod and her long hair bounced over her shoulders and covered her cleavage. Then she tossed it back where it belonged. Her mid-drift had risen slightly and only covered half her belly-button.
“What’s your narrator’s name anyway?” I asked.
“Elli! It’s me!” she shouted.
“Volume, please. I’m right next to you.”
She started off whispering, but ended at full-volume again. “Sorry. Cheer always has me screaming. It’s become a habit. But the narrator’s me, Elli the Elephant!”
“Don’t use your own name. Don’t use your friends’ names either. We’re not trying to protect their innocence as we show their faults, but this is fiction: you don’t want to stick too closely to the facts. Events and characterizing actions almost never happen together in the real world. In stories, we compress real-life events so we don’t drag on for too long. You don’t want to bore readers.”
She held a battered folder in her hand and dropped it to her toes. She left it on the floor. “How about Amelia? But I can’t say Amelia the Elephant. Maybe Amelia the American…”
“Forget about the alliteration. Plus American is vague; it doesn’t mean fat. 30% of America is obese. That’s not enough to have American mean fat. Germany and the UK are right behind us too. When I was in Wales, I saw—”
She shrieked,”YouwenttoWales? I’mgoingnextmonth! Whasehlike?!” Her voice echoed off the secondary sources in my tiny office. “Tell me what it’s like!”
“It might be cancelled this year.” I lay down my red pen and sat. The chair for students had essays that needed grading. I tossed them on the floor so Elli could sit. She stayed standing and got close to me so her bare, rough knees touched mine. “Tecwyn has health issues. He’ll live but he can’t chaperone you rowdy brats.”
“But! I paid! I bought a ticket! I packed! I’m living out of a gym bag which might be why I don’t smell so good today but usually I do, don’t I? But! How can they cancel it?”
“You smell fine. It’s not certain yet. Professor Snyder, the German and French professor, volunteered to go. They’re worried she can’t do it alone though, since she’s never been. And there are budgetary things. They still have to pay Tecwyn. They have to do something with Maria’s classes, hire a new professor or get a current professor to cover them. And they’re looking for another professor to go with her. It’s a big to-do.”
“GO! YOU! You go! You should go! You like Wales, right?”
“I have a dog.”
“Bring him. Her. Bring him or her. I’ll watch him! He can stay in my dorm. Come get him whenever you want to cuddle him and stay as late as you want. I wouldn’t mind watching him! I haven’t had a pet since my cat died.”
“It’s a her.”
“It’d be fun if you came! A lot of fun! You’re like the only professor that teaches us anything. And the rest are old. You’re not old.” She hugged my arm so it was buried in her cleavage. She looked up with pouty lips and big, wet eyes. They were blue. Her chin rested on my shoulder. “Please?”
“Let’s get back to your story. Where were we?” I asked.
“Breana Dee was sleeping with her professor.”