I bought a salad and burrito from the cafeteria line and sat back with a pen and notebook at a small table by myself. The bruise on my forehead had gone from eggplant to indigo, and I walked with the slow achiness of someone much older. Flipping through pages in my journal, I read entries from the past year until I’d reached the blank sheets near the back. I tore out the written pages, folded them in half and tucked them in the back. Wide open spaces.
After lunch, I roamed the halls. Passing the library, I saw a group of girls; one wearing a skirt with a side-slit up the leg as far as curiosity allowed. She smiled as they brushed past and through an open door, apparently late for class. Following them, I took an empty chair in the back and was relieved when no one seemed to notice me. In the front of the room, a strong feminine voice behind round, herringbone glasses continued her lecture.
“The states of our universities are depressed,” she continued, pausing for effect. “Colleges were once settings of shared manual labor: places where students and professors alike tilled the soil to raise food. They built the first dormitories side by side, nail by nail, all in the spirit of promoting the liberal arts.”
I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, looking around at the others: a Japanese kid with exaggerated bed-head petted a small Maltese. Another kid in front of him had a bushy mutton-chop on the left side of his face but the right side shaved clean. He sat drinking a 22 ounce PBR tallboy. Everyone else seemed more or less normal, but none looked my way.
The professor spoke on. “In the absence of the romance of the individual—Emerson’s celebration of consciousness, Whitman’s openness of beauty—we slide back toward the darkness of thinking of people solely as workers who must be conditioned and pressed always toward greater efficiency. Where do you all fit into this?”
A couple of kids shifted in front of me, but the room remained silent. Without thinking, I raised a hand.
“Yes?” the lecturer acknowledged.
“I can’t help but wonder if there’s a little more to it?”
“Go on,” a glint of life sparkled in her eye.
“How the world really works is more palatable when considered in the context of the romantic attitudes of the past, but how does that change anything today?”
The class shifted, taking me in for the first time. The professor looked on, nodding as though still working out what I, her non-student, had asked.
“Fascinating,” she said. “That really is the ultimate question: What are we prepared to do at this moment?”
Many in the class smiled. I must have sounded sophomoric, but the professor nodded again. “But I would remind you: There is no future. There is only the present moment. There is only right now. If you are concerned about issues like over-population and the diminishment of resources, I remind you, right now, that you are running out of time.”
Class ended a little while later; it felt good. I now barely felt the pain of my purple forehead. Exiting into the hall, I noticed Mutton-chop by the window. I circled, trying to figure out what to do next. He reeked of beer as he approached. “Hey, man, how’s it going?”
“Oh, hey,” I said, “OK, but still in a bit of pain.”
Did I know him?
“Shit, man, why didn’t you say so. I can help with that. You don’t go here, huh?”
“Didn’t think so,” he whispered, “Don’t worry. No one cares.”
“Oh, cool, thanks. I was beginning to wonder…”
He waved for me to follow him.
“Listen, we sit through so much of this shit that we stop asking questions. We just want to get it over with.”
He downed the rest of his can as we walked along the corridor and tossed it into a recycle bin. “What’s your name?” he asked.
“You get in a fight?”
“I tackled a cop,” I said.
Mutton-chop stopped, turned and took a step back, taking me in a second time, blinking as if something clicked. “That’s fucking wild! You were downtown at the riot?”
“Yeah,” I said. “He was dragging a woman by her hair through the street. Last thing I remember: lights out.” I snapped my fingers. “Woke up in a gutter. Lucky it wasn’t a cell.”
“Damn!” he said. Just then I noticed his pupils were huge. “Need some relief?”
“I already took two Advil.”
His smile widened to a clown’s face. “No man, I mean, do you party?”
“I’m Adam,” he said, “Primordial man. Rrrrr!”
I didn’t know whether to stay or run.
“I’m just joking,” he said, laughing, “Anyway, a bunch of kids are getting together in my studio for a little pre-game.” Pointing to the portal of what looked like a shed, he said, “That’s me. 201B. Stop back when you’re finished exploring. Chances are there will be a plethora of pretties for your viewing pleasure.”
“OK,” I said. “Thanks.”
He smiled. “Here, take this. Should help take your mind off the pain for a while. Tackling a cop . . .”
“Thanks, man.” I accepted the small white pill. “I’ll stop by later with some beer.”
I went to the library, figuring I’d use a computer there, log on as a visitor. I stopped at a water fountain and took out the pill. A tiny word was written on it: Percocet. Mutton-chop had given me a painkiller. I swallowed, praying that it would sooth my throbbing skull.
Logging into my inbox, I read through a couple of messages without replying. I wasn’t sure what to say. I didn’t know what I was doing or for how long. I just knew I couldn’t sit still. I couldn’t continue the routine.
I remembered Dr. Melvin’s assignment. That morning, when he’d released me from student teaching, I had agreed to read “Practical Mysticism.” So far I hadn’t gotten past the preface.
One sentence did strike me, though:
“The thoughts of the English race are now turned, and rightly, towards the most concrete forms of action—struggle and endurance, practical sacrifices, difficult and long continued effort—rather than towards the passive attitude of self-surrender,which is all that the practice of mysticism seems, at first sight, to demand.”
“Passive attitude of self-surrender.” I wondered if that’s what I was doing. Had dropping out been just another way of going with the flow?
I scribbled the passage in my notebook, and as I did, I felt a flutter in the space above my nose. I had felt it before, the light touch of a butterfly landing on the bridge between my eyes. The first time was during an acupuncture session when my “vortexes” were opened. I hadn’t felt it in a while, and it seemed to happen only when I felt like I was on the right path.
I remembered the Percocet and sat back in my chair. The painkiller was working.
Joel Finsel is the author of “Cocktails and Conversations from the Astral Plane,” and writes creative short stories, essays and musings every other week in encore throughout 2014.