Friday 6 July 2012

Short Story: The Warm Comforts of Java

It was ten o’clock already. The exam was only eleven hours away, and his heart was pounding against his sternum like an undisciplined boxer. Words and diagrams spanned the pages of his Economics textbook, but they no longer meant anything. He ran the back of one hand across his greasy forehead, and with the other punched numbers into his fat, graphing calculator. A curved line materialized on the screen, but after a brief glance at it, he shook his head and blinked twice – hard.
Outside his dorm, a group of girls stood in the illuminated courtyard and filled the evening air with talk and laughter. He peered out the window and recognized all of them, especially one slim brunette named Meghan, whom he’d noticed countless times at the campus bar. She was older than him by a year or two, and athletic-looking. Not toned, but firm like a volleyball player. As far as he knew, she didn’t have a boyfriend.
 There was a knock at the door. A guy named Jeremy poked his head into the stale room and sniffed the air. “Hey Pat,” he said. “Derek around?”
“Haven’t seen him,” Pat answered, kneading his eyes. “I think he’s with that little redhead down the hall.”
“Nice.” Jeremy grinned, and paused to admire the Reservoir Dogs poster above Patrick’s bed. “Well if you’ve got the place to yourself, maybe you should have girl over.”
 “Not likely.”
Jeremy checked the pit stains on Patrick’s grey t-shirt and the unwashed stubble on his cheeks. “Not a ladies’ man these days, eh?”
“You could say that.” Pat turned back to his textbook and tapped the page with his pen.
The other followed his eyes and nodded. “Yeah, I should probably do some studying myself – clack.” He opened a fresh can of beer and turned to go, closing the door behind him. Pat shook his head, scratched his jaw, and picked up his phone.
“Hi, Mom.”
“Oh hi Patrick, how’s the studying going?”
“Brutal, Mom. It’s all I do. I don’t even have time to eat. Every day I just get up, study, then go back to bed.”
“Well, you’ve only got a week to go. Just try to push through it, and you’ll feel better in the end knowing you lived up to your potential.”
He covered the phone and sighed. Why couldn’t she, just for once, tell him he was working too hard? He could imagine her back in their family home, standing by the kitchen phone. The smell of a roast beef supper thick in her nostrils. Pat felt his stomach gurgle, and he reached across the desk for an energy bar; but his hand came up with nothing but empty wrappers. A bouquet of hunger-ache bloomed at the back of his skull. He took a long pull from his tepid coffee in hopes of wilting the pain.
“But what more can I do, Mom?” he demanded. “How can I work any harder than I am now?”
“I know things can be discouraging, but you just have to keep pushing forward.”
Was she even listening to him? Did she even know what he was asking for? Tell me to stop working so hard! He wanted to scream. Stop making me feel lazy. “I’m not happy, Mom. I’m completely miserable, and marks aren’t everything, right?” Please God, he thought, let her agree that marks aren’t everything.
Again, she wouldn’t give the answer he wanted. “These feelings are just temporary,” she said. “Exams only last two weeks out of the year, and trust me, you’ll feel a lot worse if you come home this summer knowing you didn’t do your best.” She wouldn’t do it; she would never excuse him from work. She would give him all the there-there’s he could handle, but would never tell him to take it easy, no matter how much he claimed to suffer. Hell, he could’ve told her he was going to kill himself, and she would have probably told him to keep on "pushing forward."
“Mom, I don’t want to care about good marks anymore. They don’t make me feel good when I get them. They just make me feel bad when I don’t. ”
“I understand how you feel right now. But you have to keep your doors open, Patrick. Without good marks, you’ll lose a lot of opportunities, and you might end up one day with a job you really don’t want.”
He set his coffee cup down on the desk, alongside the ten half-empty ones that already cluttered the area. A free hand wandered behind his head, itching to tear his hair out. How am I supposed to live, thinking that way?! What you’re telling me is that good marks don’t make new opportunities. They just keep old ones from closing down. His mom said something, but he couldn’t hear her. Good marks aren’t keys, he realized, just doorstops.
“All right, Mom,” he cut her off. “I’ll talk to you later.”
“Is anything wrong?”
“Nothing, apart from you guilting me into getting high marks, no matter how horrible I feel.”
“I’m not guliting you into anything. Don’t put this on me, Patrick. It’s you who care about strong marks, and I just happen to know that.”
“Then why won’t you tell me to relax? Why won’t you tell me not to work so hard?”
“Because that’s something you need to decide for yourself. If you want to give up, go ahead. But don’t ask me to make you feel good about it.”
“Whatever. I’ve got to get back to the books.”
“Okay, Patrick. I love you.”
“Yup,” he said, and hung up the phone.
There wasn’t a single sign of trouble until he opened his exam booklet. But the moment his pen hit that blue-ruled page, his bowels purred for evacuation. Despite the mild April day, the building’s heaters were still pumping at January levels. Sweat trickled diabolically down his sides and tickled his love handles. Ten minutes into the test, he laid both palms against the desktop and rose from his chair with a delicate clench.
Leaving the gymnasium, however, was not as simple as getting up and going. As was the case with all major exams, there were proctors stationed at every exit, serving as bathroom escorts. Pat lifted his eyes to the nearest door and approached the female proctor who sat there, wearing the blue vest of a geriatric Wal-Mart greeter. She had a novel in her hands, but after noticing his approach, closed the book and stood to open the door. Pat choked when he saw that his appointed bathroom-buddy was Meghan from the campus bar.
He didn’t speak a word as she accompanied him to the bathroom, but moved as quickly as possible, checking his watch every few seconds. Meghan went about her job mechanically on this first trip. But Pat was not back in his exam seat for two minutes before his intestines ordered him to his feet again. By the time he’d made his third trip in twenty minutes, he knew that something was horrifically wrong, and that his sudden incontinence was going to drain a significant amount of his exam-time. Economics was not something you could just vomit onto the page; it required every spare minute. But he knew there was no one but himself to blame. It was his fault for not eating enough real food and drinking too much coffee in the past two weeks. After all, there was only so much warm, brown java you could pour down your throat before it started coming out the same way on the other end.
On the toilet, he stared down at his watch as time itself seemed to bleed out of him. He spoke aloud to himself, trying to calculate how much a B-minus would affect his grade in Economics, along with his overall GPA. Keep pushing, he told himself. You’ve always got to keep pushing. You don’t want to feel guilty tomorrow, do you? For a moment, threads of popping light flashed across his vision. He almost fainted.
When he approached Meghan’s proctoring desk for the fifth time, she met his eyes with a twinge of her chestnut eyebrows. “Everything all right?” she asked, putting her book down once again.
This time, he wasn’t sure if he’d make it to the bathroom in time. “Yup. Ship shape.”
Meghan stuck close to him in the hallway now. As they walked, he shot another glance at the clock on the wall. Beneath it was a sign that read “Academic Wall of Fame,” and he couldn’t help but let his eyes linger on the hundreds of brass nameplates that adorned the area. His hand travelled unconsciously to the sheet of glass that separated him from them.
Meghan walked up behind him and laid a hand on his shoulder. “I’m supposed to make sure you go straight to the bathroom,” she said.
He glanced back at her, then returned his gaze to the wall.
“Gotta go,” she repeated with a tug, “or else I have to tell your professor.”
He straightened and went with her, realizing for the first time that Meghan was almost taller than him. “Do they think we’ve got answers written all over the hallway?” he asked.
“Believe it or not, it’s already happened once this year.”
On his sixth trip to the toilet, Meghan shed her suspicion. By then, she could see the ashy death in his face, and the glinting beads of moisture pouring into his unshaven jowls. Their only communication came when Pat re-emerged from the bathroom, and she offered him an unmistakable look of pity. He tried to meet her with a self-deprecating smile. There was only half-hour left now, and he still had to finish an entire section in his exam, a supply and demand problem that required fully drawn graphs. His hand trembled as he took a pull from his plastic water bottle. You couldn’t make shortcuts with a problem like that. It would take more than forty-five minutes to complete, and there was no getting around it. The churning inside him returned almost instantly, and he felt hot, fat tears in his eyes as he looked toward the front of the gym, where his professor sat. The man was glancing through an exam booklet that someone else had already turned in.
Now there were only twenty minutes left, and all he wanted to do was feel good about himself. But he couldn’t let go. He had to keep pushing – always. His pen scuttled furiously across the paper, emptying his head and expelling every bit of knowledge he had ingested in the past two weeks.
            “Why can’t you relax?” he demanded. “Why can’t you just let go? Just stop what you’re doing and let g—”
 Without warning, a paralyzing shock coursed through him. His body went limp down to his fingers and toes, and he could feel something warm slide between the chair and his bum. He stared ahead, eyes frozen. It was all just a bad dream, and his mind was playing tricks on him. The stress had finally gotten too hard to bear, and he was hallucinating. He couldn’t possibly have… he shifted from cheek to cheek to confirm it. Yup, the load was there alright, and it wasn’t small. 
That was it. He let his head fall back and stared up into the white ceiling lights. The throbbing in his head faded, and the voice of anxiety was gone, dissolved in the insanity of what was happening. The gymnasium had descended into infinite silence.
When he reopened his eyes, the flushing tears were gone. He surveyed the people around him, and glanced down at his booklet as though he no longer knew what it was. His pen lay flat against the desktop.
            “This is stupid,” he said aloud. “I’m going to get something to eat.” He slapped the booklet shut and got up from his chair. Despite the warm squish in his pants, he headed down the row of desks with a decisive step. Others glanced up at him as he passed. When he reached the end of the line, he tossed his booklet onto the professor’s desk.
            The man looked up over the rims of his grey, wire-frame glasses. “How was it?” he asked.
            “Not great.”
            “Well that’s a shame. You’ve done so well up until this point.”
            “I’m not too worried,” Patrick answered with a shrug. “It’s nothing that’ll keep me awake at night.”
            The professor showed concern. But as he opened his mouth to speak, his attention shifted to the queue of twenty other students that had already formed behind Pat. “Well, have a good summer,” he said.
            “Likewise,” Pat answered. He turned to go, hearing someone sniff from behind him.
“Do you smell something?” the professor asked the next student in line.
            Pat marched directly toward Meghan, who was collecting her things from the proctor station. She smiled at his approach.
“That seemed rough,” she said.
            “Yeah,” he answered. “But I’m not going to get all worked up about it.”
            “God, I wish I could be as loose as you after writing an exam. I’ve got one in English Lit tomorrow morning, right here in the gym, and I’m sort of freaking out about it.” She held up her novel – Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.
            “Well either way, life goes on,” Pat said. The two of them walked through the gymnasium doors. Once they were in the hallway, he pointed toward the hundreds – no, thousands – of names on the Academic Wall of Fame. “You’d never notice any names on there,” he said, “unless it was your own, and you spent a whole morning looking for yourself.”
            Meghan followed his finger and nodded.
            “So would you ever want to hang out sometime before the summer break?” Pat asked.
            She paused, but her eyes drifted back toward his. “Uh – I guess I could go for a cup of coffee.”
            A chill shot through his body. “Coffee hasn’t been great to me lately,” he said, “but how about lunch?”
            “Aren’t you pushing your luck a bit?”
He shrugged.
“Fine, but my parents are picking me up after my exam tomorrow. We’d have to do it now.”
            “Uhh, right now?” The pudding in his pants was now spelunking down the back of his right thigh.
            “Yeah.” Meghan smiled and tilted her head to one side. “But if you need to drop something off, we can stop at your place along the way.”

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