Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Gift of Pretension

This was written for Mama Kat's Pretty Much World Famous Writer's Workshop. Check out her blog & all the fun stuff she has going on. This is a response to one of this week's writing prompts: 'Share an experience from your college days.'

I sat hunched over my smiley-face mug in the dim kitchen. The dark, wood-grained paneling contradicted the high, ornate ceilings in an argument that had continued since the day someone had butchered a lovely old house into college apartments. The dishes hadn't been done in quite some time, but that was OK. They were mostly coffee mugs already stained and ringed so badly that to wash them was merely a formality anyway. The hazy, green, fluorescent light was just a little too bright and gave the whole room a surreal quality. And at its center, amidst coffee stains, half-read books, works in progress and meandering cats, sat Sam.

Sam was the King of Surreal, himself: ruling from his kitchen on his chrome and vinyl thrift store throne. As I said, I sat hunched over my coffee mug. Hunched because it was the end of the coldest January western Kentucky had seen in decades and it was way too conformist to pay the gas bill. Hunched because Sam was speaking at length about a pet topic and I was listening intently - mesmerized.

His voice continued, soft and gravelly, stopping occasionally to inhale from the cigarette he was using more for punctuation than a nicotine fix:
"...and for a while I was all up in that scene, you know? Those cats who are all that. And they just come up with that stuff and all that. You know."
His long fingers darted about with the rhythm of his speech. Sometimes the fingers would suddenly shoot out toward me, accompanied by an arch of the eyebrows. This was my cue to nod. True to form, I hunched and nodded:
"I know exactly what you mean."
Because, of course, people like me knew exactly what it was to be all up in that scene.

That was precisely why I was chosen to be a loyal subject to this King of Surreal; to sit in this hazy kitchen and stare at the poster of a movie he had never seen that was based on a book he had never read, to maneuver my way through ashtrays and coffee mugs, to hunch and nod, to lose feeling in my fingers and toes, to wake up aching and bruised from sleeping on the floor in the clothes I'd been wearing for three days. The pain of it all was just so delicious.

Sam continued his monologue and I sat in rapt attention, wondering if I should interrupt him to let him now he had just ashed in his coffee. Instead I hunched and nodded as the fingers, cigarette and all, launched toward me again as if sent by the cocked eyebrow.
"Yeah. I know exactly what you mean." Hunch. Nod.

The frightening thing about the whole thing is that I really did know exactly what he meant. Probably better than he did. Sam and I had that "I know exactly what you mean" sort of connection ever since our first chance meeting over an unending game of Monopoly. I don't remember exactly how it started or where it came from, but suddenly we were like brother and sister. Co-conspirators against the world and ensconced in the nightly ritual of imbibing massive amounts of caffeine, nicotine, and the fumes from our own hot air. We were intoxicated by our understanding. We shared such a common angst that complete sentences were totally bourgeois. Never in my life were the words that and it so laded with import.

We had figured it out and that made us all that.


  1. What a sweet piece to encounter, of an early morning. I was a "professional student" from September of 1970, until May of 1982, with a two year sojourn in the military, having been snagged by the draft the last year it was active, in 1972. I never dormed it, but instead, lived in an upstairs studio, across the street from the San Jose State University library. Friends used to stop by on their way to the library, and never complete the last leg of their journey. During our incessant conversations, I don't think we ever "figured it out." We knew that "all that" was out there, but not likely to present itself to the likes of us. The best we could ever do is, "be up in that scene, you know?" We'd hang out with "those cats who are all that" and hope that some rubbed off. Whatcha gonna do?

  2. Oh, yeah, college days. Like my big brother Mark (above) I was a college student for a good twelve years - undergrad, two CA teaching credentials, and grad school -- and working the whole time to boot. But, I loved those kind of events that you so colorfully described. For my core group, it was wine and pot and long, long, long walks in the night and bonfires at the beach. Sometimes I miss that stuff - I still enjoy philosophizing but I don't have the same peer group any more. I guess I do my philosophizing via the written word rather than the smokey long nights of verbal conversation.

  3. I think we've all had those moments of brilliance while we still don't yet know what we don't yet know. You know?

    (PS--Love your topic labels on this one.)

  4. The title of this post is so very perfect.

    Didn't we know just *everything* then?

  5. Yeah, my college days were nothing like that. I never knew anything. Still don't.

  6. @ all of you dumplings who made my day by reading and commenting: I know exactly what you mean. Ha ha ha ha ha! No, I really do, you know?

  7. This was fantastic. Took me straight back to college. What a great rendering of this sort of experience. Great work.


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