The morning immediately following the news of her receiving tenure at the school she worked at, Cheryl got up at six. As she always tended to do. But then she had nothing to do. There were no new articles or book-projects in the pipeline. For the months following her submission of her tenure-file and up until the news yesterday, Cheryl diligently worked on a new class, getting up early every day to prep and write extensive lecture notes. That was not normal for her. Cheryl was the kind of teacher who gave students extensive instructions but didn’t always type up her own lecture notes. She liked the feeling of improvisation that not having extensive written lecture notes gave her. But this time she made an exception. She wrote lecture notes as if they were her own research papers. And this helped her to not lose her own writing routine.
Because this had been her routine for years. Make a pot of coffee, pour the liquid into a cup, walk straight into her home-office for a writing session before leaving for work. It gave her a strange sense of contentment to begin the day with sheer productivity. In her department, and amongst her friends, Cheryl had gained a kind of notoriety for being able to do this day after day after day.
“Write every day”, Cheryl wrote in her program’s blog. In the workshop for graduate students writing their Master’s thesis, she announced, “Write every day. Give yourself a daily quota. Give yourself something to look forward to every day. Write every day for 30 minutes. Or write 250 words over 24 hours. Whichever is easier. But do it. Write every day. I mean it.” The students would nod. Some would look at her with disbelief. Annie, the grad chair, shook her head and smiled in a conspiratorial manner. “She knows,” she mouthed to the students while pointing at Cheryl.
In fact, Cheryl had written every single day for so many years she had lost count. Even when she came down with the flu. Even when she had to grade 360 papers in 5 days. She did not work at a school where she could take a semester off to write. Her classes were always full of students – young and old – who lacked too many things. Who lacked everything and always wanted a part of herself. Yet Cheryl had finished a book and six articles. Of the latter, her school needed only four. Cheryl knew her colleagues called her “machine” behind her back. But Cheryl hadn’t given much thought to this. What’s wrong with being a machine? The mothers in the department were the worst. They hated her. They reminded her, every opportunity they got, how she didn’t have to take care of a child. Cheryl didn’t mind. It was true. But she had made a choice. And all she was doing was enjoying the benefits of that choice. Her colleagues had made different choices, and here they were. Always complaining about being mothers.
One of them had asked Cheryl once, “Do you like children?” Cheryl had chuckled. “Who doesn’t?” It was an easy, polite answer. And it was the right thing to say given the context. The real answer, though, was much more complicated. It wasn’t that Cheryl hated children. They simply didn’t interest her enough. What would she talk to them about? What did one talk about to someone who had lived for such a short time on this planet?
On that particular Thursday morning, Cheryl woke up feeling extremely lethargic. The way you felt after a heavy dinner. The previous night, two of her colleagues – who were single and childless, just like Cheryl herself – had taken her to a bar. Cheryl had way too many French fries. Her colleagues did not have tenure. Both of them were coming up within a year and a half. And their monographs were not done. They were wide-eyed about Cheryl’s writing ability. Envious, too. That’s what Cheryl had thought. But she had been gracious and encouraging. Given she was ahead of them, it was the right thing to do. “You’ll get it done”, she kept saying. “Just keep at it. Don’t give up.” And stuffed her face with French fries.
She would have slept in, but ever graduate school, Cheryl had not slept past six. Cheryl went to her kitchen, put the coffee beans in the grinder. The buzz of the blade, her own thumb on the switch, the beans breaking into powder inside the little holder, made Cheryl gasp. Here was a plethora of details she had ignored before. Cheryl switched the coffee-maker on. But not before holding the filter-paper against the light, not before blowing the paper three times, as if she was cleansing specks of dust that could not be seen with the naked eye.
Cheryl told herself she would have to learn to find meaning in these miniature minutiae now. For years, she had pushed everything to the back-burner. She had stayed away from love. And except for a few hook-ups at conferences, had said no to sex too. She couldn’t risk commitment at this stage in her life. Nothing could get in the way of tenure. Which meant nothing could get in the way of the book, the articles. Which also meant, nothing could get in the way of the writing. There had been nightmares, occasionally. Cheryl would sit up on her bed, sweating. What if she couldn’t pay the mortgage for the house she bought as soon as she got the job? What if she couldn’t find another job ever? In spite of it all, Cheryl followed tenure so single-mindedly because it was the right thing to do. Ever since Cheryl was a child, she could not imagine not doing the right thing. She had attended all her Sunday school classes, even when she wasn’t terribly interested in them because it was the right thing to do. Always showed up to class having done all the assigned readings, always turned in the assignments on time. As a teacher, she always explained everything meticulously in class to her students, wrote extensive grading rubrics for them, handed back their assignments on time. Because it was the right thing to do. Still is.
As the coffee brewed in the kitchen, Cheryl walked into her bathroom and lowered herself onto the toilet seat. Because she had decided that she would devote herself to the minuscule minutiae in her life from now on, she noticed her legs didn’t touch the floor when she sat on the toilet. Cheryl giggled. “Shitting is orgasmic,” she said to herself. Then she waved her hands the same way she did in class. Cheryl was sure this was not original. Someone must have said it, somewhere else before. After cleaning herself and squeezing a generous amount of toothpaste on the toothbrush, Cheryl told herself she would have to try a new brand. There was a neem-flavoured one she had seen at the supermarket last time. Neem would be just the right dose of healthy, novel, and exotic. This would also give her a chance to talk to her best friend Meghamala about something. Meghamala, who calls herself Maggie.
Cheryl knew Maggie might launch into a rant about cultural appropriation. She might even lecture her on what makes it possible for American buyers like Cheryl to buy neem-flavored toothpaste from supermarkets when people in India are starving or some such stuff Cheryl already knows about, and once she hung up, Maggie would probably also send her three links to read. But it’s okay. Maggie means well. People like Maggie need a punching bag and Cheryl doesn’t mind being Maggie’s punching bag. Partly because Maggie is the best proof-reader that Cheryl has ever met. The best editor you can have. Because all of Cheryl’s articles and books have gone out into the world with the abiding touch of Maggie’s fingers. Cheryl once said to Maggie, “How come your English is so good?” Maggie had raised her eyebrows. “What do you mean?” “I mean, it’s not your native language, no?” “Hellooo, I’m Indian-American. Like, American? Besides, we’re Indians. We’ve been colonized by the British for so long,” Maggie had said, launching into a long lecture about how it was the fate of every middle-class Indian like herself to be sandwiched between two empires – the British and the American. And then abruptly ended it by saying, “You won’t understand.” Cheryl understood some of it. The rest she didn’t quite get. But that was okay. Maggie is her best friend, which means she doesn’t have to understand every last thing about her.
Cheryl had never considered herself to be too intelligent or too intellectual. Neither did she consider herself to be too ambitious. That is why she never worried too much about the topic she chose for her dissertation, which eventually became her book. She wrote on Chaucer and the influence of“Italian Textuality” in his work. When her graduate school buddies were tearing out their hair trying to infuse their dissertation topics with some kind of social justice angle, Cheryl had quietly withdrawn within herself to learn languages. Latin, Italian, French. There was a silence in learning a new language that Cheryl loved. The fact that a language newly learned did not allow you to make loud proclamations. The fact that in a language newly learned, one always spoke haltingly. No one can be too ambitious in a language newly learned. This lack of ambition suited Cheryl. Cheryl knew her dissertation would not provoke any arguments at the annual departmental party. But on hearing what she was writing about, everyone would be polite. It was this anonymity of politeness that Cheryl had chosen for herself. Had even sought out.
What she believed in was doing the right thing. That’s why she always voted Democrat. She believed in doing the right thing, and so had decided not to post anything political on Facebook until she got tenure. There was that one moment when she typed a status message about the Muslim ban, a week before her tenure file was due. But then she thought, it would not be right. So she deleted the message. It would not be right.
And now she had tenure. Cheryl knew, everyone thought she was ambitious. Wanted nothing other than to be successful. But Cheryl herself knew better. She knew she could do what she did because she had never been too ambitious. But had always believed in doing the right thing at the right time. She also knew her life lacked the perturbations others around her seemed to have. Maggie, for example, could never get a full-time job but taught every class as if she was speaking from the pulpit. Maggie’s lectures were always full of words like “racism”, “heteronormativity”, “Islamophobia,” “American Empire.” Maggie’s classes always filled up quickly. The students would flock to her class just to be torn into bits and pieces. By contrast, Cheryl always felt her classes were full merely because they were requirements. Maggie was just an adjunct, but didn’t hesitate for a minute to call the President “shitstain.” Her posts on Facebook were angry. Always fuck this and fuck that.
As Cheryl, standing in front of her bathroom mirror, took in the synthetic spice-feel of the toothpaste while running her tongue through her teeth, she reminded herself that it is by noticing the small details – the ones that can be touched and felt – that life’s meaning lies. This is the moment when she ought to feel the exhilaration of the hot cup of coffee waiting for her in the kitchen. Cheryl walked into the kitchen without her slippers, letting the cold of the floor seep into her skin. There was a kind of solace in watching the deep brown of the coffee settle against the earthen blue of the handmade mug she had gifted herself from the farmers’ market after finishing an especially arduous writing goal. Cheryl reminded herself she needed to buy a new set of coffee mugs. There were way too many browns and blues in her kitchen now. She needed warmth, happiness. There should be some more red and yellow. Maybe some orange, for balance.
Cheryl had this thing for knick-knacks. And furniture. Other than writing every day, this was the other thing she had done for herself over the years. Every month, she set aside a part of her income to buy something for the home. Inside, every piece of furniture was carefully planned, organized, and arranged. When she needed a break, Cheryl looked through home-décor blogs. They always reminded her that there are different ways of living. Different effects can be achieved by reorganizing the same objects. Sometimes, a different effect can be created by adding just one thing or two. And Cheryl doesn’t mind if those things need to be bought. She will save up especially for the purpose. This is how Cheryl bought three of her dressing-room cupboards, the spring-green bookshelves, color-coordinated with the upholstery of her couches, the antique tables in the living room, and the cabinets in her study. The ceramic figurines and vases had been bought the same way, patiently curated from catalogues and independent craft websites.
Maggie said there were two things behind Cheryl’s home mania. In a world where nothing was under control, the only thing that Cheryl could control was the wall her sofa faced in her room. And second, plain old consumerism. Cheryl had tried to argue, “But this is how I deal with the ugliness of the world. I make my own space beautiful. I don’t have the power to beautify the whole world.” Maggie had shrugged. “You sure have the money.” Cheryl didn’t argue any further. Maggie was entitled to her own opinion. But within a week and a half, Maggie sent her some beautiful pillow covers adorned with Indian mirror-work. Cheryl thought to herself, perhaps Maggie wasn’t as liberal as she claimed. But she didn’t say this to Maggie. Instead, she put the cushions on her pillows, took pictures, and sent them to Maggie with an elaborate thank you note. As soon as the pictures were taken, she took the covers off. The gaudy Indian colors, beautiful as they were, did not go with the neo-Victorian theme of her bedroom. When Maggie would come for a visit, she would briefly put the covers back on.
Today, when Cheryl sat down on her laptop, her left hand wrapped around the warmth of the coffee-mug, she could not think of anything to write about. All her life, Cheryl had written because she was supposed to. School assignments, college assignments, graduate papers – every bit of it was a requirement. Later came the conference papers, the journal articles, and the book. Well, those were assignments too. Of sorts. Cheryl had never thought of writing not tied to an assignment. Cheryl tried her own advice – “write for 15 minutes without taking a break. Write whatever comes to your mind.” She reminded herself, first drafts were always shitty. Yet after much fumbling with her keyboard, the only word she could write was “the.”
Cheryl sipped her coffee. A couple of summers ago, she and Maggie went to St. Petersburg to visit the Salvador Dali Museum. Cheryl had paid for the entire trip, of course, because she had a tenure-track job and Maggie was just an adjunct. Because hotels were so expensive, they stayed at an Airbnb. Their host worked in a garage, had heard about the famous Dali Museum in St. Petersburg people came to see, but had never gone himself. He didn’t have the slightest clue as to who Salvador Dali was. Maggie kept talking about it for days. “Can you imagine what it would be like to be that guy? Can you imagine how awful his life is?” Until Cheryl had snapped. “He still makes more than you do.” Maggie didn’t talk to her for the rest of the trip. Didn’t call or text for days after they returned home. Cheryl did, and eventually apologized. They have been good ever since.
Cheryl thought of calling up Maggie to plan another trip. But that would also mean paying for the entire trip again. Because Maggie barely makes it on five classes spread over three colleges, and that would not be the right thing to do. Besides, she was sure, otherwise, Maggie wouldn’t go. Anyway, Cheryl wasn’t sure she could deal with Maggie’s intense bitterness for three days straight.
Other than Maggie, Cheryl did not have any friends. She never had the time. Instead, she had colleagues, with whom she attended writing group meetings, monthly coffees where they kept each other accountable over writing deadlines and submitting manuscripts to journals and publishers. Cheryl had always done what was right – had listened to their stories about dog vomit and cat poop, nodded judiciously when they talked about their kids’ schools, and had tried to sound interested. But Cheryl could not dream of going on a vacation with any of them. That left her mother.
But three days of listening to her mother complain about her father was even more tragic than having to listen to Maggie. The last time she tried to go for a vacation with her mother, Cheryl had ended up saying, “If you hate Dad so much, why don’t you have an affair?” Her mother stopped eating and had sobbed quietly to herself. Cheryl knew it was not a nice thing to say. It was not right. But she couldn’t help herself. Cheryl raised her coffee-mug up to her lips, took a sip, ran her tongue over her teeth, set up her Pomodoro for another session of writing. After twenty-five minutes of vigorous typing, all she had was a page full of “the the the the……” There was also an “in” inserted somewhere in between. Cheryl closed her computer and rose from her seat.
There was a strange stillness in the house. The stillness one felt when you hadn’t left your house for several days on end. Cheryl walked into her backyard. The high walls blocked the view of anything that lay beyond. But Cheryl knew there was an elementary school just outside the walls. And its yard was filling up. A little voice was shouting, “1…2…3…4…5…6…” The intervals between the digits began to grow considerably after “three”.
“Let’s take a break from counting,” the same little voice said. Cheryl smiled at the resolve in that voice. She walked back into the house, into her home office. She needed to do something with her hands. Cheryl opened her laptop and ordered an Alexa. In this house, there would henceforth always be someone to talk to.