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THEORIES OF DISPLACEMENT
A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements For the degree of Master of Arts In English
By Christopher William Francis Corning
The thesis of Christopher William Francis Corning is approved:
Professor Martin Pousson, M.F.A.
/ I- 3i?--/p
Professor Ranita Chatterjee, Ph.D. Date
Professor Katharine Haake, Ph.D., Chair
California State University, Northridge
Table of Contents
Signature Page Dedication Abstract
ii iv v
Theories of Displacement
THEORIES OF DISPLACEMENT
By Christopher William Francis Corning
Master of Arts In English
Does language function to bring people closer together, or does it distance them from one another? Can a person ever truly get from here to there, or does ―there‖ simply become ―here‖ once a movement has taken place? To what extent does the label we put on a thing or a person affect the way that thing or person moves through the world? Theories of Displacement is the story of an aspiring writer near the end of his undergraduate career who finds himself wrestling with these types of questions. Surrounded by languages— Russian, Japanese, literary academic, and twelve-step recovery lingo—the young man recalls past romantic involvements as he wonders about the potential impact a job opportunity could have on his current relationship.
I wish I‘d been there. whose encouragement. v . With many heartfelt thanks to my generous and insightful readers both in and out of the CSUN English Department. and direction have been invaluable. especially KH and TK. support.Dedication For Yuka.
maybe he would have chosen another major entirely. The sentence stuck with him for a few reasons. but also by the sentence that reverberated in his consciousness: ―You can get there from here. pushed along not just by the effort of his pedaling. even though he hadn‘t played either in over a decade. in their very first conversation. She wore 1 . or anything that didn‘t require two years of foreign language education. But if he couldn‘t reach the point of feeling like he belonged on campus. He sped along on his bike as if he was racing toward the day he would be done with Russian. but the reason that set the wheels in motion on this particular morning ride to class was that he looked forward with great eagerness to the day when he would no longer need to be called Sergei.Theories of Displacement Sergei rode swiftly down the bicycle path at five minutes past ten to his ten o‘clock Russian class. which he needed to pass in order to get his degree. if he had it to do over. He‘d chosen writing. and he‘d chosen Russian. That wasn‘t how his story had unfolded. He stood outside the coffee shop on a cigarette break when she first walked up and spoke to him. and actually stop feeling as though he was a fraud for being on the university campus in the first place.‖ and narrowly avoided wondering how it might apply to his relationship with Akiko. before he knew he would end up dating her. He knew every bump. The route he took to class was the very one he‘d described to Akiko. or that he wouldn‘t be able to take second-year Russian until his final year of college. he might have made some different choices along the way. like substance abuse counseling or computer science. they stayed in his memory the same way each jump in Super Mario Brothers and every secret passage in Zelda did. he would happily settle for just passing the Russian class and moving on. pothole. maybe he could even get here from there: break with his small-town upbringing and genetic predisposition toward substance abuse. If he pedaled hard enough.‖ His name was Sergei only in his Russian class. his enthusiasm about finishing distracting him from his annoyance at the students who insisted on walking in the bike lanes. though. ―I can get there from here. and curb along his route to the Foreign Language Building. But then. If he had known as a freshman that he would be living with a Japanese girlfriend by the time he was a senior. So he continued his ride along the bike path thinking of that sentence.
Her pronunciation was too polished to be that of a native speaker.light brown corduroy pants and a pink-colored polo. at times when he was particularly 2 . When he neared his destination. the thought was with him to stay. He hoped the classroom door was open so he might be able to slip in unnoticed. Sergei was awed immediately by her presence. It was worse when the classroom door was closed because it locked automatically. This time he lucked out. she gave him a look that made him feel like a kid caught stealing a pack of gum. Then he heard himself say the sentence out loud for the first time: ―You can get there from here. an international student. Either way. The Russian instructor never said anything about Sergei‘s consistent tardiness. if he was to spend any significant length of time in Russia. though. As the instructor went on about transitive and intransitive verbs of motion. a surefire way to get everyone in the class to notice him. which both accentuated her elegant demeanor and tipped him off that she was. in fact.‖ Maybe the idea struck him as odd only because he said it to someone whose first language wasn‘t English. Sergei pondered how often he might be able to visit home. and she looked lost. For a moment he was ashamed of his ratty jeans and scruffy goatee. Sergei stopped pedaling and coasted to a stop. so he made his way to his desk with very little commotion. He had. but speaking to another American he might not have said it at all. from the moment of that first utterance. The door was propped slightly open. He found something endearing about her assumption that he would know she meant the Foreign Language Building. preventing him from guessing her nationality as he was sometimes able to do with other international students who came through the café. Even with her casual attire. The term seemed to fit her. and something struck him about her use of that acronym with someone she‘d never spoken to before. but he ignored the feeling as he listened to her question. She had an elegance to her composure that reminded him of a word he‘d once heard an English professor use to describe a character from some Victorian novel: gravitas. so he had to knock lightly to get someone to let him in. She asked him how to get to the FLB. She spoke with no noticeable accent. or прийду во Америке. and then locked his bike to a parking meter before making his way in to the very same FLB. but on days she did happen to see him walk in.
. the conversation he needed to have with Akiko once they were home together in the evening. and they‘d been living together for over six months. laughing as she watched him try to roll out buckwheat dough for soba. considered the idea of going abroad to teach English after graduation. or obaa-chan. ―Sugoi. Before he‘d met Akiko. if he wanted her to come with and help him find his way around. Not wanting to talk to Akiko about possibly moving away from her. Sergei had fallen in love with Akiko‘s home country the previous December when he‘d joined her on a visit home to see her family. Now that he‘d been with Akiko for nearly two years. *** 3 . He took the nickname as a sign that Obaa-chan harbored a special affection for him. until Akiko finished her Ph. He smiled every time he thought about Akiko‘s grandmother.D. he thought Japan might be a realistic possibility. At one point in the fall semester he‘d gone so far as to fill out an application his Russian teacher had given him for a summer program teaching English outside of Moscow. Kuri-chan! Sugoi!‖ she cheered playfully. too. he wouldn‘t be able to move there for at least two years. but also reason to get a passport in the first place. he‘d never turned it in. As much as he loved Japan.inspired by the seemingly bleak prospect of finding work with a degree in creative writing. Russia seemed like the obvious choice if he was ever to live abroad. calling him by the nickname she‘d given him: Kuri-chan. and Akiko didn‘t bother to correct his misinterpretation. Why couldn‘t he just find a promising job prospect in his own time zone? Sergei tried to redirect his attention to the Russian instructor before his line of thinking went to its next logical place. That two-week trip had given him not just his first passport stamp. no matter how poorly he spoke the language.
Sergei‘s first thought after being told to go to twelve-step meetings was that he might be able to convince his dad. Sergei had been living with his dad at the time in the depressing household his father and uncle shared after their father died from a heart attack. Sergei missed weekends at his dad‘s playing Nintendo with as much as he missed the days when he and his older brother both lived at their mother‘s house and started each day by getting high together before school. Most of those mornings they hadn‘t even spoken to each other. It only took Sergei two weeks to get his six signatures for the guidance counselor. Rather than ask his dad. but it stuck with him outside of class because of something that had happened at the first twelve-step recovery meeting he went to as a college student. It 4 . they just took turns smoking hitters until Sergei‘s ride showed up. not the one for alcoholics. Those rants were probably part of the reason Sergei‘s older brother John had stopped spending weekends with their dad once he became a teenager. auras. the Federal reserve. but inevitably covered topics such as Buddhism. The people he met in the meetings didn‘t seem anything like his dad. who had been going to meetings off and on for as long as Sergei could remember. To steer clear of his dad. to take the meeting attendance sheet to the meetings he went to and get it signed for him.‖ prophets. and sometimes even astral projection. He had started going to twelve-step meetings when he was a junior in high school because his guidance counselor told him he could avoid a suspension for getting caught with drug paraphernalia if he went to six meetings in a month. By the time Sergei was told to go to twelve-step meetings. for the most part. the twelvestep people seemed suprisingly down to earth. ―the powers that be. But Sergei knew that even if his dad would‘ve been willing to get the paper signed— which he wouldn‘t have been—just asking for such a favor would have been met with one of his dad‘s trademark extended monologues. but he kept going to meetings after that. or like the people he remembered from the few meetings he and John had gone to on weekends at their dad‘s house. Sergei decided he was better off going to six meetings himself and getting it over with. he went to the group for drug addicts. Aside from being reformed drug addicts. his brother John had already gotten clean. courtesy of the United States Marine Corps. His lectures could be triggered by something as benign as a question about the time.The name Sergei may have come from his Russian class.
When he found the meeting place later that night. with ―Sergei‖ written in smaller letters beneath. combined with the fact that he‘d grown bored of Spanish in high school. his fascination with the idea of being able to decipher a foreign alphabet was part of the reason he‘d chosen Russian to fill his foreign language requirement. As the instructor gave nametags to each of the students. repeating it slowly. She smiled and held the door for him. huh? Sir-gay?‖ He hesitated a moment. which he now regretted not taking off after class. ―Is this where the meeting is?‖ he asked.‖ she said to him. but Sergei welcomed the challenge. ―Sear-gay. 5 . as specified on the voice recording from the helpline number he‘d called.didn‘t even bother him much that some of the grouchy old bikers told him they‘d probably lost more drugs in the carpet than he‘d ever used. he looked for the side door. It was his first day of Russian class.‖ she said. A young woman was stepping out just as he approached. The Cyrillic alphabet seemed a little intimidating. It was like being in on a secret. Sergei wore a nametag to his first twelve-step meeting in the college town. where he‘d been given a nametag that read ―Сергей‖ in big bold Cyrillic letters. ―Sehr-gay. starts in about ten minutes. a pack of cigarettes in her free hand.‖ he repeated back. taking a minute to pick up on the fact that she was attempting to read his nametag. she coached them on proper pronunciation of their new Russian names. Close enough. He thought it would be neat to have firsthand knowledge about the pronunciation of words containing the backwards ―R‖ that appears in most popculture references to anything Russian. He guessed he must be in the right place. a small church near campus. She moved on to the next student. ―Yeah. ―You‘re new. Sergei was ―clean and serene‖ fifteen months when he‘d moved out of his dad‘s house to go away to college.
since he‘d grown up poor with an on-again off-again drunk for a father. were only made to look that way. Her clothes fit loosely and looked almost like they came from a secondhand store. Jessi. and his brief experience at a math and science academy had already demonstrated that he didn‘t have enough class for academia. I‘m Jess. She might ask where his hometown was. whether she was seriously interest in recovery or just passing through. yeah. and with her smiling bright blue eyes and clear complexion. She looked as though she couldn‘t be more than a few years older than he was. She looked like she was about average height. and that he‘d just moved here for school. The silence had already become sufficiently awkward when Sergei reluctantly decided not to stay outside and have a cigarette with Jess. ―And it‘s not Sirgay. Sergei thought about telling Jess that he‘d gotten clean in his hometown. she didn‘t have the look of a desperate. He hadn‘t.‖ ―Oh. Or maybe she would ask what he was studying. and express surprise that such a small town had meetings he could have gone to. so he went inside to try to find a good seat. okay Sear-gay. or more likely. but he resented the assumption that because he got clean young and was going to college. a few inches shorter than Sergei.―Um. it‘s Sehr-gay. ―I mean. I‘m new in town. He wanted to know everything about her: how old she was. and he could fumble to explain that he didn‘t know why he‘d come to the university. he was very proud of his fifteen months. if she had a boyfriend. how long she‘d been going to meetings. He didn‘t contest the fact that he hadn‘t made as big a mess of his life as many other addicts had. like they sometimes called him. Something about the way she held herself gave Sergei the impression that she came from an affluent background.‖ she said. not new to recovery. he must have had at least a middle class upbringing. Short for Jessica just like his ex. But that‘s not my real name. 6 . strung-out newcomer. Jess.‖ he said.‖ He would hate to be mistaken for a newcomer. He didn‘t want to seem dull or worse. ―And that is my real name. Maybe she was what the other twelve-steppers would call a high-bottom addict. to come off looking like he was as attracted to her as he was.‖ He smiled and nodded.
such as ―keep coming back‖ and ―easy does it. It was a good meeting.‖ ―get a sponsor and work the steps.‖ ―don‘t pick up. more or less. He wondered who first issued the decree warning against romantic relationships in early recovery. Sergei couldn‘t imagine that Jess would possibly be interested in him. and the members seemed to be.Jess. He had seen too many other guys take heat for not heeding the warning: ―give the newcomer a chance.‖ He knew that if he even tried to date a newcomer. The same books and pamphlets sat on the literature table. no matter what. sponsor to sponsee. In addition to the countless other slogans. It felt a little different from the type of meeting Sergei was used to. and whether that same person had been involved in coining another clever saying he‘d heard once or twice: ―honeys and moneys—finance and romance are two of the biggest obstacles for an addict trying to stay clean. she was technically off limits. Even if she did seem to get a kick out of introducing him to some of the other members at the meeting that night as Sear-gay. He wondered how much the sayings had evolved over the years people had been repeating them to each other. punctuating his efforts to share about his own experiences using drugs and getting clean.‖ All of that aside.‖ Sergei liked that. The phrases helped out with the fact that pretty much everything he‘d planned to say left his consciousness as soon as he raised his hand. 7 . anyway. his hands and voice shook as he repeated as many of them as he could remember: ―Go to ninety meetings in ninety days.‖ Sergei was very familiar with the oft-repeated suggestion: ―stay out of relationships for your first year of recovery. keep it in your pants!‖ The slogans had been handed down from generation to generation. the same eclectic assortment he‘d come to expect to find in meetings. One of the oldtimers from back home often referred to the mix of people you find in meetings as the ―bus stop crowd. The first time Sergei had shared in a meeting. his sponsor and other oldtimers would never let him live it down. for who knows how long.‖ and so on. but generally people shared about the same types of things he heard in meetings back home. He knew that if she had less than a year clean.
one day as he rang her up for coffee. She was one of the honors society students who came to tell freshman what they might expect in the coming years.The second time Sergei saw Jess was at the departmental orientation for freshmen. Jess did see him. was a senior. He took one of the outer seats in the second row from the back. that he would be taking her course on Nabokov. and was active in the honors society all seemed like very good reason Sergei could rule out the possibility of a romantic connection. no less— possibly have in an ignorant freshman? The forty-minute break between Russian and Sergei‘s next class wasn‘t enough time to justify going back to the apartment. hoping to go unnoticed. ―Oh. an intimidating class for him on a number of levels. Sergei felt awkward as soon as he saw her with all of the other English department people. as he had no idea whether he should pretend he‘d never met her before. but it was nice not to have to wonder whether she wanted to acknowledge that they knew each other. so he typically spent the time on the quad. it was supposed to be an anonymous program. After all. For starters. but not until just as she was headed to the podium to talk. and that it was especially exciting for him because he was also studying Russian. hi Sehr-gay. or what. He could have done without the embarrassment of being singled out in front of the crowd. His next class was a senior-level literature course on Vladimir Nabokov. What interest could such an obviously intelligent and accomplished woman—who was on the verge of graduation. Discovering that Jess was in the English department. She responded by first correcting him on his pronunciation—―Nuh-boe-kuhv‖ rather than 8 . where he learned that she was a senior in English. He made the mistake of telling her. reading or writing. He‘d never run into anyone from meetings out in the real world. causing half the people in the room to look over at him.‖ she said with a wave. the instructor was one of his regular customers at the café where he worked.
and the whole task could be so tiresome that there were times he fell asleep before getting through more than a few pages of an assigned book. his main way of comprehending relationships with other kids had been to imagine how they might be written about in the young adult sci-fi novels he loved to read. Something about the knowledge that he was obligated to read something made the task of reading it that much more arduous. and he sometimes wondered why he bothered trying to complete his reading assignments at all. he sat under his favorite tree on the quad. than talk on 9 . It was the same situation with entire pages. Even when he was reading things that weren‘t mandatory class reading. he greatly preferred to write an email. a large oak whose full branches hung low.―Nah-bah-kahv‖—and then proceeding to speak to him in Russian. Between his sense of shame about his rough Russian skills and the difficulties his slow reading caused in a course covering seven novels in a single semester. Sergei labored over every page of the books he read. On this afternoon. Sergei wasn‘t sure how to balance his difficulties reading with the fact that. he would begin to worry that he had missed some important detail along the way and have to skim the paragraph again before moving on. and then get a novel published in the next few years. Sergei also learned that Nabokov had been fluently trilingual. discovering quickly that he was not quite conversational in his ability to govarit pa Russkie. at least until he started making friends and spending time outside his house. and had published his first novel at the age of twenty-five. all Sergei had to do now was reach fluency in Russian and Japanese. When he‘d finally begun to develop some social awareness in the fourth or fifth grade. the Nabokov class was nearly as stressful as the Russian class. By the time he reached the end of a paragraph. Great. or even a hand-written letter. well-read peers. Even though he had been a remarkably slow reader for as long as he could remember. Every year it got harder to keep up with assigned readings. like so many others. and he‘d be right on track. He‘d always torn through those books much more quickly than anything assigned for a class. Add the stress of trying to read for an English class filled with intelligent. creating what felt like an outdoor reading room. in most cases. just to be sure. he‘d always loved to read.
As he understood it. Casual conversation. As far as he could tell. and reorganize the world around him through language was what had prompted him to study English when he started college. He also worried he couldn‘t keep track of what was said in conversations. he could always go back a paragraph or page and discover what he‘d missed. or when he mentioned that he was sending his résumé to a nonprofit in California. The written word can always be edited and improved upon. Talking face to face. More importantly. or if there was any tension involved. The sense of security Sergei felt when he was able to categorize. can‘t be snatched back out of the air and corrected. so he wouldn‘t be forced to think and react on the spot. She said less when he mentioned his phone interview. organize. He could anticipate and prepare himself for her responses and concerns. once spoken. Kuri-chan was at a loss for his script. What if he missed something? If he lost his place while reading. usually left him feeling very pressured. when writing. and hated the idea that he might have some good point to make but not be able to think of it under the pressure of immediate communication. that was what people studied when they 10 . building a solid case for his position. especially if he had some reason to be nervous.the phone or in person. He could organize his thoughts and ideas the way he might write a letter. she had no interest in discussing the matter. however. Having some advance time to think about what he needed to tell Akiko that evening should. was rarely casual. In theory. Real-time communication was far too immediate for him. in theory. Words. Writing made it possible to gather his thoughts and be very deliberate and selective in how he chose to express himself. make it possible for Kuri-chan to be well-prepared. In practice. She hadn‘t said much when he dropped his education minor. he didn‘t have the slightest clue how Akiko would respond to his news. With so little prior input from her on the subject. He didn‘t have much faith his ability to always respond adequately or appropriately. he was free to take his time to find the right words and phrases and put them together in the right order. He didn‘t like getting caught leaning on the same words and phrases or delivering half-formed thoughts and ideas into the discourse. for Sergei. he could mock up a mental script of the conversation for himself.
The classroom discussions about possible references in Pale Fire to real life writers and literary works made it clear that Sergei was shamefully behind as a reader. In the end. They didn‘t study writing. Sergei had wondered briefly whether maybe he should just try to write on his own. and then they could leave their day jobs behind and enjoy fame and fortune. they taught English. He was only slightly deterred his notion from adolescence that writing is something that shouldn‘t be taught. Jessi. college would do more than just waste your time and money. he couldn‘t help but wonder how he could possibly hope to be a successful writer. if you‘re really an artist. They studied English. considering his difficulties grasping even a few of the seemingly endless underlying complexities of meaning that arise in a novel made up of the interplay between a 999-line poem by a fictional poet and its extensive commentary by a fictional editor. the sense of obligation to go the college route had eventually won out. He tried to imagine himself happy living that simple life: teaching English when high school was in session and spending the breaks writing novels. as Sergei tried to read Pale Fire. and they tried to write in their free time if they could manage it. As a high school student. He missed those conversations. If you‘re really creative. and particularly his dad‘s house. he hadn‘t been able to shake the feeling that someone with his grades and test scores should at least give college a shot. as far as he knew. He gradually learned that it had been an immature understanding of the writing world. Some very lucky few managed to write and publish books. and they didn‘t set out to be writers. In the previous semester. All that language gets in the way of meaningful social commentary. Combined with his intense desire to move out of his small town.wanted to be writers. he‘d taken a course on Samuel Beckett that left him feeling pretty much the same way. He began his college career hoping to become a writer because he‘d been captivated reading books like Brave New World and 1984 and having long philosophical discussions with his first serious girlfriend. and he didn‘t see how reading these works by authors obsessed with language would help him get there. it would stifle your muse. 11 . He wanted to learn how to write those books. Now. So he declared his obligatory minor in secondary education to make sure he‘d be able to find a teaching job once he finished school. but he‘d never been exposed to any other view on things.
As much as he‘d felt like an outcast growing up in one of the poorer families in town. Maybe his reluctance to talk with Akiko about literature had something to do with that voice. As he watched a bicyclist narrowly avoid hitting a pedestrian walking on the bike path. over the plains and prairies. In the time since he and Akiko had started dating.‖ It had always seemed like an odd statement to him. sitting upright with impeccable posture.‖ Did the roads in this college town lead halfway across the country. It was a beautiful spring day. thanks to Jess he would never be able to forget his privileged status as a heterosexual white male. It brought another saying to mind: ―All roads lead to Rome. and thought again about the idea of getting there from here. He smiled. his attitude toward the English department alternated frequently.Maybe it didn‘t help that he and Akiko never had conversations like the ones he‘d had with Jessi. one of the first temperate days of the season. her hair pulled tightly in a bun and her book-bag hanging loosely at her back. It seemed no different from saying that the sidewalk ten feet in front of him led to the sidewalk in front of Akiko‘s lab. riding along at her leisurely pace. the canyons and rivers. so the quad was bustling with activity: guys with beards and baggy shorts tossing a Frisbee back and forth. sometimes from one week to the next. growing up poor in small-town mid-America didn‘t seem like it could compare to being a political refugee in post WW-II Europe. He went from being convinced that writing assignments for lit classes were nothing more than tedious exercises designed to suck all the joy out of reading to believing deeply that he wouldn‘t be qualified to craft a page of prose until he was intimately familiar with all that had already been accomplished in the field of English literature. blonde girls wearing sorority T-shirts shaking change cans for a philanthropic cause. to that 12 . labeling his relationship with Akiko as a symptom of colonialism. which in turn led to the intersection where she sat on her bicycle waiting patiently for the signal to change from ―don‘t walk‖ to ―walk. other times on a minute by minute basis. And as much as he felt like he should write about social issues. and couples napping together in those few patches of grass with the best direct sunlight. He pictured her on her bicycle. Kuri-chan wondered whether Akiko was in her lab doing experiments or at home taking a break. He could even hear her voice in his head. These meandering thoughts detracted from his already-challenged focus as he sat on the quad trying to read.
office building somewhere on the West Coast where he might take his first job as a college graduate? Then again. more importantly. For all Kuri-chan could tell. all appeared to have some sense of what they wanted to do with their lives. the place marker stuck in the same page it had been when he pulled it out half an hour earlier. Sergei closed his book and slid it back into the front pocket of his bookbag. he still had no idea how that might correspond to a practical living. 13 . would it actually help him achieve his dream of becoming an author? Or the job prospect—his only job prospect— would it be a move toward the life he wanted? After all. He chalked that up to Akiko‘s reserved Japanese manner. but it sure didn‘t mean that reading about Shade and Kinbote was going to get him any closer to understanding Nabokov‘s relationship with Robert Frost. from people like the Frisbee-throwing stoner who hadn‘t shaved in months to the sorority girl who hadn‘t spent an entire weekend sober since her freshman year. or where they wanted to go. she might react with the same cool indifference she displayed in response to his suggestions for places to go for dinner. or his ideas about which movie to rent at the video store. if he decided to move halfway across the country. even if writing a paper about these speculations helped him pass and get a degree. of course. ―you can get there from here‖ might apply to driving from one place to the next. He was nearly paralyzed just by the thought of having to make a major life choice like moving to another state for a career opportunity. Or. or even finishing Russian and getting a bachelor‘s degree. Most of the other students he talked to. it was a writing job. but in spite of his years as a student of English. and it also involved doing something he believed in: helping addicts stop using drugs and stay stopped. It couldn‘t have been his part in the relationship. But what would moving halfway across the country do to his relationship with Akiko? He found it difficult sometimes—most of the time—to gauge their emotional distance. Sergei knew he liked to write.
for the most part.*** The last time Sergei had pondered a major life move had been long before he first became known as Sergei. he told them the story. As they took turns smoking one-hitters and played Spades. but most of the other kids on the math team probably suspected. It was this same quality that appealed to him about writing computer programs. we‘re gonna call you Corndog. What Mr. Anderson didn‘t know. Anderson: ―From now on. he speculated. At the time. Corndog went to hang out and get high with his stoner friends.‖ Mr. 14 . Anderson made the pronouncement on the triumphant bus ride back home from the regional math competition. Corndog took first place in the individual competition for freshmen. on the computer at his grandma‘s house. They all seemed to find the nickname pretty amusing. When the other kids stopped playing the Carmen San Diego game long enough for him to get a turn behind the greenish monochrome screen. One of the things Corndog most appreciated about algebra was that things. Mr. intending it as a way to make fun of Mr. When he got home that evening. looking over his shoulder one afternoon as he solved algebra problems. should be free of all the ambiguity and uncertainty that came with making life choices. Anderson. He could still hear the voice of his math team advisor from freshman year. and wouldn‘t even let Corndog finish his story because they kept interrupting to refer to him as Corndog and laugh hysterically. should always follow a clearly defined path. was that Corndog and one of his closest friends snuck away to get high before meeting up with the others for lunch. Solving a math problem. His seventh grade math teacher. The nickname stuck. encouraged him to think about learning how to program if he got the chance. most of his friends and family had known him affectionately as Corndog. but he also drew lots of attention to himself prior to the award ceremonies by eating five and a half corndogs at the campus food court. He had already played around writing simple number-guessing games as a child.
which the player would try to guess in fewer than ten turns.he worked obsessively until he was able to replicate the game he‘d seen his friend‘s brother playing once on their home computer. The guy transferred a bunch of programs he‘d gotten from his brother to Corndog‘s calculator. It hadn‘t been until he joined the math team his freshman year of high school that Corndog finally got a graphing calculator of his own. or anyone else who spent much time playing it. one of them told him about a transfer cable that made it possible to share files between calculators. the program responded by telling him whether his guess was too high or too low. even with the game‘s initial element of randomness. the execution of the program was utterly predictable and reliable. contributed to his ability to devise such a strategy for guessing the right number. like Pong and Tetris. He was also a bit surprised at how much more quickly he grew bored with the systematic game play that had somehow kept him entertained for hours when he was still pre-pubescent. He took note very quickly of the fact that. his responses to the prompts became just as systematic as the program itself. like an electronic cheat sheet. including a few games that seemed fairly complex. and he was amazed at how well he‘d retained it. The game Corndog wrote started by generating a random number between 1 and 100. When he played the game. Immediately after that. he did his best to recreate that number guessing game he‘d written on his grandma‘s computer. The first was just a program made to store some of the formulas they used a lot in class. As he perfected his system of guessing—always choosing the number exactly halfway between the known possibilities for high and low—he started to wonder whether his knowledge of how the game worked. gifted to him by the freshman math teacher who knew he couldn‘t afford one himself. writing a few simple programs. When Corndog talked to the other guys on the math team about the programming feature on the calculator. He set to work immediately. would stumble upon that approach fairly quickly. considering the habit of smoking pot and drinking he‘d developed in the years since then. from a programmer‘s perspective. Corndog opened the Tetris game in the program editing 15 . Each time he entered a guess. He figured that it was a simple enough game that he.
Rather than try to imagine what it would be like to go away for school. He took advantage of his spot in the back corner of the room watch the other students wander in and take their 16 . Nowadays Sergei could easily get back into that same mindset. as she considered those games a waste of time.‖ Once he took his seat for the Nabokov class. Programming and playing those mindless games became Corndog‘s go-to reaction to any suggestions from Mr. and while he could understand some of the functional commands. He convinced himself to stop trying to figure out the code part. Anderson that he consider applying to a math and science academy he‘d heard about. By that time. because it wasn‘t like he had any ideas for games of his own that he needed the information for. It would be good prep for college. ―Don‘t worry. Corndog took refuge in the games on his graphing calculator. She invariably gave him dirty looks when he did. ―You have plenty of battery left. so he got a lot more enjoyment out of just mindlessly playing the game. He felt some relief as he remembered that they were supposed to start watching a film adaptation of The Defense.screen to try to figure out how it worked.‖ he‘d say. Anderson assured him. whether it be prep academy or college. Sergei noticed an AV cart at the front of the room. he had already been smoking one-hitters with his older brother John before school every day. taking Akiko‘s phone and playing its built-in Space Invaders-like game if he needed a break while they studied together at the coffee shop. he couldn‘t quite figure out the parts about displaying and manipulating different shapes. but he also regretted that he had been trying so hard to finish Pale Fire if they wouldn‘t even be talking about it that day. Mr. Instead he focused his energies on trying to get his initials in the high score list.
though. Sergei recognized some of the students from a ―Comparative World Literature‖ course he‘d taken. As everyone moved things around. He felt like he 17 . gesturing as if to ask if it was okay to push her desk back between rows. avoiding eye contact as she slid it back right next to Sergei‘s. to sit by her friend. he was tempted to act like he didn‘t know what she was trying to ask. The classroom was pretty full. The cart was just inside the door when she came in. He moved his desk to make room for hers and tried to smile politely. As it became clear she would need to move her own table and chair out of way. He wasn‘t sure. she would have to do some rearranging of things.seats. to the right of Sergei. but in order to plug it in and make sure everyone had a clear view of the screen. He thought it curious that she didn‘t speak. mostly because it was cross-listed under a few different departments. as they brought Russian-language versions of each of the novels to class. and see how long it would take her to verbalize the request. He couldn‘t bring himself to do it. let alone said anything directly to him. As she looked back at Sergei to see if it would be okay to move her desk back. in terms of the academic backgrounds of the students. It was the most diverse class he‘d taken in quite a while. Before he could react. but he also suspected that some of the students were majoring either in Russian or in Russian literature. a girl in the next row turned and looked at Sergei. a couple of the students in the front of the room got up to start rearranging furniture. Sergei felt like maybe he should go up and help out. Her desk was so close to his as to actually be touching. and was made up of both undergrads and grad students. The only times he‘d heard her speak had been rare occasions when she turned and spoke softly in Russian to the young woman who sat behind her. probably for the same reason he typically tried to avoid looking at her: he found her attractive and suspected she knew it. She let a slight smile show as she moved her desk. beside his. but her silence was certainly wasn‘t out of character. There were still a few minutes until class began when the instructor came in and started to fuss with the AV setup. so there wasn‘t much room to move the desks around. He couldn‘t think of a time that she‘d participated in classroom discussion in all the weeks of class up to that point. along with a handful of grad students from the English department.
He couldn‘t help but wonder. He didn‘t notice as their arms gradually moved closer and closer. look at her 18 . Sergei slouched in his seat a little. Sergei made a special effort to stay clear of the boundary between his own personal space and that of his neighbor. and had been re-inserted into a much more compelling narrative involving the young woman sitting next to him. might have been to pull away. She squeezed herself through the space between her desk and her friend‘s. whether it had been something about him. He‘d forgotten all about the narrative taking place on-screen. and deeply aware of his arm and hers. Still. and more specifically. against his arm. The friend giggled.should try to move a little more to give her space. they essentially shared an extra-wide armrest. A normal reaction. His desk had a right-side armrest. Immediately he was back in the classroom. The instructor made a few announcements about the course schedule for the rest of the week. probably in Russian. and the girl next to him had a left-side armrest. of course. but his desk was already butted up against a storage cabinet on his left. He put his feet in the basket under the seat in front of him and let his right arm rest on the top of his desk. whispering to her friend and giggling together in a way that seemed designed to attract attention. to attract his attention. so much so that having a television on in a room rendered him nearly incapable of having any semblance of coherent or intelligent conversation. or the fact that his own arm had made its way closer to the thin space dividing his desk top from hers. that made no difference when the girl‘s skin touched his. and then she dimmed the lights and started the movie. trying to find a position in the hard plastic chair that might be relatively comfortable for the next eighty minutes or so. Not that the girl would have noticed. Just as he did when sitting next to a stranger in a movie theater. It wasn‘t unusual for her to do something like that. He was the type of person who was easily drawn deeply into the world of movies and television. she sat with her hands together in her lap. he suspected. Sergei was sufficiently engrossed in the film that he didn‘t notice when the girl moved her arm onto her armrest. so with their desks pushed so close together. sitting at his desk. He only took notice when the soft skin of her forearm brushed. ever-soslightly. and then she leaned and whispered something to her friend.
all without breaking the contact. very slightly.‘ as in ―años. but put that out of his mind as fast as he did any thoughts of moving. Sergei was sitting in his dorm practicing the Cyrillic alphabet. and reposition his arm in such a way as to prevent further inadvertent contact. which was something his high school Spanish class hadn‘t been able to offer. He thought for a second about Akiko. nonsensical. and how Nabokov had constructed those first moments of illicit physical contact between Humbert Humbert and the nymphet. As she moved. The girl‘s arm continued to rest gently against his. a difficult task in the first moments but one that quickly became much easier.and smile awkwardly. enough so that Sergei was absolutely convinced that she must have been aware of the contact. and he felt incredibly antsy but dared not move. Each moment of the contact sent new waves of sensation up his arm and down his legs.‖ Those small differences about the Spanish alphabet seemed far too minor for Sergei.‖ pronounced ―anyos. and pronounce ‗ll‘ as ‗y‘ as in ―tortilla. primarily a product of his own imagination—a moment of physical contact now served as a bridge between some kind of fantasy and some kind of reality. Dolores Haze. Sergei recalled a few key passages from Lolita. her arm drew away from his and then closer again.‖ And he knew to roll his Rs. But he let his arm remain still. and the fact that so many people seemed to know at least a little Spanish made the language seem a little too 19 . She didn‘t pull away. Sergei‘s own connection to the young woman beside him—irrational. barely two weeks into his first semester of college. Sure. of breaking this nonverbal bond of desire. however disparate the two narratives might be. he knew that ‗ñ‘ was called ‗ey-nyay‘ and pronounced like ‗ny. He found something deeply satisfying about learning a foreign alphabet. The first time Jess called him to see if wanted to have with dinner with her. The sensations Sergei felt radiating through his body from his point of contact with the girl reminded him of the beginnings of his relationship with Jess.
mundane or commonplace for Sergei. Understanding an entirely foreign and much more complicated set of symbols that far fewer people could read, on the other hand, such as the Cyrillic alphabet, felt like another story altogether. As he got those first grueling days of class out of the way and slowly gained an ability to sound out the words on the various posters hanging up around the room, he reveled in the knowledge that he had acquired a rare skill. But then, the ability to read words on posters was quite different from the ability to recreate those words by hand on a sheet of paper. So Sergei was writing out letters of the Cyrillic alphabet, and even practicing some of the few words he knew— ―быстро‖ – hurry, ―привет‖ – hello, and ―спасибо‖ – thanks—when Jess called to ask him to join her for dinner. For all the same reasons he was sure Jess wasn‘t interested in him romantically, Sergei was sure she must have meant the dinner invitation to be platonic. She seemed to him like the kind of person, both as a college student and as a person in recovery, who liked to make a big show of being grown up and mature. What better way to pretend to be a sophisticated adult than to have dinner with a member of the opposite sex with strictly platonic motives? ―Go downstairs and wait out front,‖ she said. ―I‘ll pick you up in a few minutes.‖ Sergei sat on the stone bench in front of his dorm building and smoked a cigarette as he waited. From where he sat facing west, he could see a fair distance down University Avenue, the road that spanned the northern border of campus. The four lanes of traffic seemed like a thin separation between campus and the residential neighborhoods to the north. Sergei was still getting used to the urban environment. His only other experience living in a city had been his brief stay at the academy, but that campus had been situated on the outskirts of a much more suburban community. Jess honked as she pulled up in front of the dorm in an old Volkswagen sedan. Once she learned that Sergei had never eaten Thai food, Jess insisted that they eat at an Asian restaurant she knew off-campus. It wasn‘t a Thai restaurant, but more like a pan-
Asian type of place. According to Jess, it was the only place in town that served any Thai dishes. ―Pad Thai is good for virgins,‖ she told him as they looked over their menus. He looked up from the menu, wondering for a moment if he was that obvious, until he realized she was talking about eating Thai for the first time. ―If you like spicy stuff you can try some of their yellow curry. The curry here isn‘t the best I‘ve had, but it‘s still good.‖ Sergei nodded. He hardly paid attention to his anxiety about the food, as he was too nervous about making her think he was an idiot. And somewhere underneath that, he was starting to feel the onset of some serious apprehension about telling his sponsor that he went out to dinner with a girl. Yeah, so he had more than a year clean now, but sometimes he still felt a little like a newcomer. And he knew if she didn‘t have at least a year clean, having dinner with her definitely wouldn‘t fly with his sponsor, even if it was platonic. He stole glances at her between failed attempts to read the menu. Her dirty blonde hair was cut short around the sides, a bit uneven and spiky, with slightly longer bangs hanging down to her eyebrows. She had light blue eyes, and the corner of her mouth curved up a bit higher on the left side when she smiled. What did she want to talk to him about? Recovery? Literature? The university? Had he judged her only on the way she carried herself at the freshman orientation, he would have never been able to imagine her using drugs. As he watched her look over the menu and listened to the way she described the food, she no longer seemed like the same girl from the honors society. They ordered pad Thai and yellow curry to share, and she insisted on Thai iced coffees, too. After placing their order, Jess explained that she‘d been clean since halfway through her sophomore year, just a few months longer than Sergei. ―So I take it your using didn‘t interfere with your schoolwork that much?‖ he asked, once they had received their drinks. ―No, not too much,‖ she said. ―I just didn‘t like what it was doing to me, so I quit.‖ ―So no treatment or anything? Just straight into recovery? That‘s how I got clean.‖
―Yeah, no, I didn‘t want to go to rehab. Those places are horrible for reinforcing gender stereotypes and pushing their patriarchal moral codes down people‘s throats. I‘m sure I would have gotten all kinds of shit for being bisexual.‖ ―Mm-hmm,‖ Sergei mumbled. He wasn‘t sure what else he could say to that. Jess‘ ease in pronouncing some of the phrases she used reminded Sergei of the way his dad rattled off some of his most beloved terminology when delivering one of his diatribes. But this was a new language, one Sergei hadn‘t yet had time to process. ―Well, I mean I did just come out over the summer, but it was because I‘m working on my Fourth Step, and my sponsor said that I need to be sure to get out all my secrets as part of writing the whole ‗searching and fearless moral inventory.‘ I‘ve heard they make you do like a life story thing in treatment too, so it probably would have come out then.‖ ―I see,‖ Sergei said. ―So have you dated girls, then?‖ He felt slightly uncomfortable asking, but she was the one who brought it up, so why not? ―No, not really,‖ she answered. ―You know, once you take some gender studies and queer theory courses, you‘ll probably understand it better. Sexual orientation is primarily a political thing, Sergei.‖ Sergei couldn‘t help but think that she might be taking some of the things she read a bit too literally. But he felt a little more at ease, taking her ―coming out‖ as a sort of confirmation that it was a platonic date. He didn‘t feel nearly as nervous with her, and he also got some relief about trying to figure out what he would tell his sponsor. He and Jess talked for a while about recovery—she filled him in on some of the local gossip—and about their favorite books—she told him his reading list was overrun with old dead white guys, and that he needed to branch out a little bit. She promised to loan him some more diverse reading material. They drove back to campus after the meal, which she insisted on paying for, and walked back to the dorms together from the student lot. Sergei‘s dorm came first, so they stopped
at the front door to say good-night. Sergei noticed that he felt more comfortable and at ease than he had any time since he‘d first arrived on campus. ―That was really nice,‖ he told her. ―Thanks so much for dinner. I‘m no longer a virgin... at least when it comes to Thai food,‖ he laughed. ―I‘m always happy to deflower,‖ she snapped back quickly. She smiled at him and let the silence linger a moment. Just as Sergei began to reach the limit of his comfort level for looking her in the eyes, she broke the silence: ―Any time you want a ride to a meeting, just call.‖ ―I will,‖ he answered. ―Thanks for being so welcoming.‖ Sergei opened his arms to give Jess a hug, the way he would if saying good night to any other recovering addict. She hugged him back warmly and held him closer and longer than the typical after-meeting hug he was used to. When the embrace ended, Jess surprised Sergei by kissing him on the lips. He didn‘t pull away or resist, but he did not actively return the kiss. She parted her lips slightly and he followed suit, and she closed her lips momentarily on his bottom lip, and then released. She stepped back, smiling. ―Good night,‖ she said. With barely a second‘s pause, she turned and walked away. With that, Sergei‘s newfound sense of comfort and ease had vaporized. He knew he would take a lot of heat from his sponsor, and possibly other members, if he openly dated Jess, even though they were both safely out of the one-year cooling-off period. But did she even want to ―date‖ him? His sponsor‘s only response when Sergei mentioned meeting her had been some offhand comment about the psychological implications of his first romantic involvement in recovery being with a girl whose name was the same as the last person he had dated while using drugs. He suggested that Sergei wait it out a bit before making a decision. After that conversation, Sergei caught himself thinking about the name issue on a few separate occasions, in the same way he might daydream about a sentence he‘d read in
taking drags in fast succession so the burning end of the cigarette grew abnormally long and misshapen. During the course of the meeting. Sergei stood outside smoking. or a sentence. and instead seemed to be completely engrossed in what each person said while sharing. it was beginning to seem that Jess was just as brash as Jessi had been in terms of instigating a relationship rather than waiting for Sergei to do so. both were academic but seemed to possess healthy senses of skepticism. which was close to campus. He put his arms around the shoulders of the two men beside him and looked across the circle at Jess. He took that as a good sign. who she continued talking to as she breezed past Sergei and went inside. seemingly engrossed in conversation with the girl she arrived with. and his ex‘s name was Jessi? Granted.‖ or introduce him to the girl she was with. So what if this girl‘s name was Jess. She didn‘t acknowledge him again until the close of the meeting. Jess walked up and hugged Sergei with far less affection than when they‘d parted after dinner. Maybe some small part of him was trying to recapture what he‘d had with Jessi? Dropping one letter off an algebraic equation or some string of letters could make all the difference in a calculation. She didn‘t bother to speak to him beyond a quick ―Hi. and so far. Jess differed from Jessi in at least one critical sense: she was in recovery. He smoked anxiously. Still.class or something he heard in a meeting. a word. Wouldn‘t the same be true for a person or a relationship? All else aside. who smiled as she embraced the people next to her and then bowed her head for the moment of silence. At the next meeting he went to after the kiss. making sure that he was paying adequate attention to her. or even going to the meeting at all. because he hadn‘t been able to work up the nerve to call and see whether she would be driving there. He‘d walked to the meeting. even if 24 . he got the distinct impression that she was keeping tabs on him in her peripheral vision. when everyone gathered in a circle for the closing Serenity Prayer. wondering how he was supposed to act when he saw Jess. Jess conspicuously refrained from looking at Sergei. they had other things in common: they were both pretty in ways that Sergei would describe as ―wholesome‖ to avoid the ―next-door neighbor‖ cliché. He finished one cigarette and lit another just before Jess walked up.
the waitress seemed to recognize them and gestured toward a group of tables on the far side of the dining area that had been pushed together to make one long table. with a view of the door. Sergei picked up his 25 . Even the man‘s voice was boring. He smiled in acknowledgment and continued to listen patiently as the man next to him talked at length about the year or two he‘d spent in Sergei‘s home town decades ago. He arrived at the table and looked back to the entrance. but it grew increasingly difficult to do so. He walked slowly as he followed the other early arrivers to the table. half restaurant. but maybe the group felt it was safe since they were all there together. He didn‘t know how many people from the meeting were coming. Sergei felt an uncomfortable combination of panic and disappointment as it occurred to him that maybe Jess wouldn‘t come. At a glance. She didn‘t miss a beat in her conversation with her friend. It wasn‘t until he‘d been sufficiently distracted answering questions about what meetings were like back home that Jess finally showed up at the table and took a seat across from him. Maybe she‘d gone somewhere else with the girl who came to the meeting with her.‖ The group reached consensus to go to one of their usual haunts. he wasn‘t able to stall long enough. in which she seemed to be completely absorbed. Sergei asked one of the men from the group for a ride over. He reluctantly sat down on the far side of the table. Sergei was a bit surprised to see that the place was half bar. so he could see where she would sit. In spite of how slowly he made his way across the room to their table. trying to stall long enough for Jess to arrive. and there was still no sign of Jess. Jess smiled back at Sergei briefly enough that he could easily have missed it. Walking in. or went back to campus to study. Even though only a few from the group had come in. The man was surprised that Sergei‘s hometown even had any meetings. and made small talk with the middle-aged man he rode to the restaurant with.she did avoid him after the circle broke and everyone drifted slowly to the parking lot to decide where to go for food—―the meeting after the meeting. Sergei tried to appear interested in what the man next to him was saying. a pizza restaurant a couple miles down the road from the meeting place. He was accustomed to people in recovery who went out of their way to avoid establishments that served alcohol. Sergei guess there was room to seat at least sixteen people.
He pulled back slightly. but couldn‘t figure out a way to do so without seeming clumsy or awkward. underneath the table. he made one last desperation effort to pick something off the menu as the waitress took an order from the man next to him. as the waitress asked what kind of dressing he wanted on his salad. but firmly enough that it seemed like it must have been intentional. He didn‘t. Jess remained involved in her conversation with her friend. He didn‘t want to spoil the secret. He felt a rush of embarrassment as it occurred to him that she might be on the verge of getting involved with the girl she was talking to. Sergei continued to stare at the menu. Sergei felt something touch his foot. He felt like he should reciprocate. unseen by the rest of their companions. 26 . He‘d never played footsie before. and the tingling sensations running up his leg from the point of contact were almost too much for him to take at first. He looked at Jess. Sergei wasn‘t sure how to respond. Jess wasn‘t overly aggressive with her affections. That seemed to intensify the excitement and pleasure her touch caused.menu and started scanning the items intently. hoping the man might stop talking for a minute. but simply rubbed her leg against his slowly and lightly. he managed to achieve clarity just long enough to think about the implications of the fact that Jess had just come out as bisexual. and the man next to Sergei was now repeating his anecdotes about Sergei‘s hometown to another guy who‘d come and taken a seat on the other side of him. The waitress had gone to put in their order. thinking someone had accidentally brushed his foot. and continued with his order. After a moment. Just as he started placing his order. Distracted as he was by the constant chatter coming from the man next to him. he felt it again. like those first times he kissed a girl. this time more slowly. He resigned himself to an evening of dull conversation with a middle-aged recovering addict with whom he probably had very little in common. unable to summon enough focus to actually read it. so he kept as still as he could. She was still engaged in conversation with her friend. only looking up sporadically to glance at Jess. Disappointed by his own foolishness. though. but looked at Sergei for a moment and winked slyly as she brushed her leg back and forth against his under the table.
He channeled a burst of 27 . which remained still. while not arousing in a particularly sexual way. Sergei waited for the girl to break contact first. which seemed like a good way to channel out some of the surplus energy the illicit contact had generated throughout his body. he just didn‘t move his arm away when the girl‘s arm touched his. was probably a good thing—a sign of mature. Sergei didn‘t even know the girl‘s name. When class ended. As his guilt subsided. So the missing sense of excitement with Akiko. largely made up of dull conversation with the older guys. and squeezed his leg tightly between hers. then. Jess continued with her gentle flirtations below. who sat mostly to his left. Should he even feel guilty? It wasn‘t like he was considering cheating on Akiko or had done anything to betray her trust. She varied her affections. Sergei wondered if they segregated by gender that way every week. hooked one foot around the other. Once she moved her arm and started to collect her belongings. had stirred up more excitement in Sergei than he typically felt in his relationship with Akiko. At one point.The rest of Sergei‘s evening ended up being. He sped away from Nabokov and his growing sense of guilt as fast as he could make his Cannondale move. Jess continued talking with her friend and some of the women. All the while remaining completely disengaged from his presence in the group talking and laughing around the table above. Sergei flashed briefly on thoughts of the mature and rational conversation he needed to have with Akiko later. most of whom were sitting on the end of the table to his right. rational behavior. like playing footsie with Jess. as she wrapped both of her legs around his calf. But the point of contact between them. as he had suspected. he did the same. In spite of paying little or no attention to Sergei above the surface of the table. she got her other leg involved. alternately rubbing and resting her leg against his. Maybe it was just the thrill of doing something in secret. or if it had just sort of happened that way organically. But that might not have been a fair comparison.
making his own quickness seem suddenly more real to him than the air breezing across his cheeks or the feeling of the tires moving swiftly over the pavement. he had to settle for the audible gasps. Sometimes the bike-path walkers traveled in his same direction. Even in cases that his targets did see him approaching early enough to overcome the initial paralysis. their initial reaction was invariably a terrified paralysis that overruled any impulse to escape to one side or the other. With any luck. once he was sure he provided the bike-path trespassers the greatest scare possible.‖ Sergei considered people who walk on the bike path to be a nuisance and a hazard. he drew a certain measure of sadistic pleasure from the genuinely horrified looks on the faces of these fellow students when he sped toward them at completely unreasonable speeds. and his apartment 28 . First. of course. but despite all the complaints he regularly vocalized about them. Either way. Sergei loved that the university campus had separate paths for bicyclists. these errant pedestrians served a couple of important functions for Sergei‘s frenzied treks along the campus bicycle paths. He only regretted that his classes were so close together. it was in the moment of passing that the pedestrians served their second purpose. that they let out moments after he passed. but when they saw him coming and their minds instantaneously calculated his velocity and direction. Sergei was moving far too quickly to leave them sufficient time for evasive maneuvers. but somehow the university‘s admissions processes failed to screen out the types of students who thought it reasonable to wander off the unusually wide sidewalks onto the narrow strips of paved surface clearly labeled ―bicycles only.renewed energy into his pedaling in hopes of bypassing that stressor. He knew. preventing Sergei from savoring in his amusement at the panic-stricken looks on their faces as he passed. if only for a short time. their incredibly low relative speed gave Sergei a basis for comparison. as they suddenly became aware of the great bodily harm from which they had just been spared. that he wasn‘t going to hit them. In those cases. Sergei invariably cut to the left at the last possible moment. real or imagined. his recklessness endangerment might motivate them to take advantage of the ample sidewalks in the future. As he whisked past.
Kuri-chan sat at his desk in front of his Russian homework. Probably not any kind of biologist. just sticking with his first love: math. 29 . Instead he stared at Akiko. At home with Akiko. Or both. transfixed both by his admiration for her drive and by the thought that he too could have been a scientist. were often complicated by the fact that objects in nature had imperfections and irregularities. He would do best. Even those calculations.with Akiko not much farther away. or that she would welcome his departure. Some evenings when he was able to stay focused on his schoolwork. unfortunately. though. he imagined. greatly reducing his ability to savor those fleeting moments of unadulterated joy. More often. He didn‘t know which worried him more: that she might try to dissuade him from leaving. He certainly made an effort not to act too much like Corndog around her. for that matter. Biology and chemistry were far too messy and unpredictable for him. working on his Russian homework. Maybe he was neither. Nevermind the idea of what various powders meant to the people in his recovery groups. He wasn‘t comfortable with the idea that you could take a certain kind of powdery substance and put it in one type of liquid with no reaction whatsoever. if he was going to try to be a scientist. And who would he be if he took the job out in California? He wondered how best to broach the subject with Akiko. That‘s why he would‘ve had to go with something like physics. As far as hard sciences were concerned. as his bicycle rides grew shorter the faster he rode. or maybe even astronomy. to be sensitive and respectful. Akiko sat on the couch with her Macbook writing an email to her students about spectrophotometry. it‘s simple enough to predict what will happen. not a microbiologist. especially something intensive like practicing conjugations for the endless list of Russian motion verbs or reading anything by Nabokov. he felt obligated to embody Kuri-chan in her presence. he didn‘t know whether he was Sergei or Kuri-chan. but he wasn‘t making any progress. Sure. Corndog preferred things a little more intuitive: when one ball with a particular mass and velocity collides with another ball of specified mass and velocity. and then put the same powder in another seemingly-identical liquid to yield a frothy mess. not like the smooth round steel orbs he‘d used for experiments in physics class. he continued to feel like Sergei.
With people in recovery. especially anything related to math or computer programming. or when he compulsively immersed himself in information on a topic. he sometimes lost hours of homework time by bouncing from one Wikipedia page to the next. But now that they lived together.He turned back to his Russian homework and considered how the sense of satisfaction that came with writing out a complete Russian sentence by hand was uncannily similar to the joy of solving a complex algebraic equation. and also with people in his college classes. is домашнюю работу – domashnyuyu rabotu. As Sergei. polite. The construction of each word was like the translation of one mathematical expression into another: much like x2 can be written as x·x. Homework. moving a feminine noun from nominative to accusative meant changing the final letter from ‗a‘ (ah) or ‗я‘ (ya) to ‗у‘ (oo) or ‗ю‘ (yoo). not being acted upon. on the other hand. accusative. it was simply expressed in different terms. As a high school student doing algebra. he would still feel like Sergei. but that didn‘t feel right with Akiko. and all the other case endings for nouns than to try to memorize transitive and intransitive motion verbs and all their irregular conjugations. Quiet. The times he felt most like Corndog were family situations. being completed diligently by Sergei. willing to make mistakes and learn from them. and open to suggestions and to being corrected. prepositional. he enjoyed the process of translating the various elements of an equation into equivalent symbolic expressions a step at a time. The problem was always equivalent to the solution. It felt like trying to tell whether or not the powder would fizz in the liquid just by looking at them. The formulation of each statement contained within it the logical imperative for the next statement. until finally arriving at the desired mathematical statement. and especially when he‘d gone to Japan with her. is домашняя работа – domashnyaya rabota. he wouldn‘t hesitate to bring up 30 . he felt most like Sergei—speaking up about his ideas. Coming home from class or a meeting. Homework. observant young gaijin soaking up the culture. figuring out who to be at home was a constant challenge. Sergei imagined maybe his sense of identity worked like the transformational rules for declining nouns into the appropriate cases. Like his childhood obsession with encyclopedias. When he first started dating Akiko. Sergei found it far more enjoyable to practice nominative. he was most definitely Kuri-chan. Writing out the Russian sentences gave him a similar feeling.
noting to himself that it was probably better not to offer any commentary on Japanese culture in future conversations with Akiko. had it followed any type of regular schedule. or rather a criticism of Corndog.‖ she said. Once she got started on one of these rants. but not its course. Sergei had barely even begun describing what he‘d read about hikikomori to Akiko when she stopped him. ―You don‘t understand Japanese culture just because you read the article about something in Japan.‖ Sergei hadn‘t pushed the issue. you know?‖ ―No.something he‘d read in a conversation. ―That‘s different. This didn‘t change anything about Akiko‘s own tendency to get into a mood where she offered up statements comparing the ills of American culture to the superior strengths of Japanese culture. and instead took the conversation in a different direction. her brow slightly furrowed in a way that made her seem both resolute and defensive. ―He is nothing like Japanese person. in the context of a conversation over dinner about one of his friends in recovery who had a tendency to isolate. Your friend is not like Japanese person. At one point when they‘d been dating for a few months.‖ she answered. 31 . because it was more commonly a Corndog trait that seemed to be the triggering event. but Kuri-chan knew to be very careful about the topics he raised with Akiko. The attitude wasn‘t one that she seemed to harbor all the time. ―I‘m not saying it‘s the same. like his remarkable appetite for consuming information or food.‖ Sergei said.‖ ―Well yeah. but that wasn‘t the case. he made the mistake of mentioning an article he‘d read about the phenomenon of hikikomori.‖ Sergei went on. Sergei might have even been tempted to blame hormonal factors for the phenomenon. He hadn‘t seen her so rigid before. but instead seemed to be a function of some frame of mind that periodically came over her. or the ease with which he became engrossed in video games or TV. ―but there are just some similarities. The timing of it was unpredictable. noticing that she was sitting up straighter than usual. She would begin with some criticism of Sergei. young Japanese men who become extremely reclusive to the point that they didn‘t leave their homes or even their bedrooms for years at a time.
She might tell him about a confrontation with one of the postdoctoral students in her lab. The first time he had been subjected to that type of lecture from Akiko was in their first few months of dating. except that instead of being lofty and circuitous. forceful. She‘s been here in this country for what? Three years? And she‘s dating a fucked up drug addict? She might need to adjust. and said he was thinking about breaking up.‖ Sergei gave it some thought and decided his sponsor was probably right. It‘s natural she‘s gonna have times when all she can see is everything that‘s wrong with here against everything that‘s right back home.‖ Sergei‘s sponsor told him. He aspired toward being Kuri-chan with Akiko as much as possible. but because he was simply accustomed to being Sergei so much of the time. he did his best to play Kuri-chan—quiet and respectful—as he listened to her complaints. Tempted as he was to suggest to her that maybe she was just feeling frustrated and homesick. Akiko usually responded with the same type of impatience she expressed when Corndog played games on her cell phone or lost track of time reading things on the Internet instead of studying. ―If you really think you‘re not compatible. The next time she went there. and aren‘t nearly as lazy. Sergei called and told his sponsor about the conversation. Think about her situation for a second.Sergei knew it was best not to engage her. not realizing that it might be a repeat performance. ―But it sounds like maybe you just got your feelings hurt. Akiko‘s script was direct. Kuri-chan instead remained silent as Akiko reminded him that Japanese people are thinner than Americans because they eat plenty of vegetables. but the longer they were together the more difficult that was to maintain. before they had even made plans to visit Japan together. and he would talk to her the same way he might talk to one of the addicts he sponsored. Shortly after it happened. and had a subtle underlying note of scorn that Kuri-chan had great difficulty not taking personally. The predictability of the rant was reminiscent of his father‘s long-winded monologues. you know. from deep moral failing of American culture of consumption to the triumph of Japanese values of moderation and hard work. by all means break up. and let it run its course. If he was going to ignore his 32 . Not so much because of her occasional criticisms of all things not Japanese.
―I thought I was going to have to let it ring all night. He loved Russian when it was just the Cyrillic alphabet and simple sentences. there were far more rules in Russian grammar governing verbs of motion than there were for English grammar in general. It was probably no coincidence that business calc put Sergei off math in the same year he‘d been involved with Jess. The man had surprisingly little to say as he drove Sergei back to the dorms. when he‘d taken business calculus. I want you to come over. which left Sergei to ruminate on what exactly Jess was doing with him. he caught a ride back to his dorm from the man who talked too much. where he heard the phone ringing as he unlocked the door. The night she played footsie with him. He said good night to the man and went up to his room.studying. Now motion verbs seemed likely to do the same for Russian. As near as Sergei could tell. but he grew tired of the work when it came to memorization of which verbs were transitive and which ones were intransitive and then figuring out which cases that meant for the respective nouns. wearing the same clothes from the night before and a baseball 33 . but dissatisfied. He still considered himself a virgin when he walked into class twenty minutes late. His sense of disillusion over the way Russian was shaping up reminded him of his first semester in college. but the only math class he took in college managed to leave him not just disinterested or complacent. it was better to at least give the appearance of working. which was currently all he was doing with his Russian motion verbs. Sure.‖ Jess said. ―It‘s about time.‖ Sergei spent the night with Jess in her dorm and woke up late for his eight o‘clock business calc across campus. his time at the academy had already put him off math.
Jessi. He also brought her to orgasm. He flashed on a memory of lying on a blanket with Jessi by the soccer fields at the academy. but Jess did make him cum. not because sex is actually so incredibly sacred. She smiled and told him society seeks to engender that feeling among teenagers for its social utility. Nevertheless. Again. so I won‘t push you. as a male. ―You‘d be shocked at the number of teenage girls who are fooled into thinking their first sexual encounters are consensual. which was something Jessi had never let him do in those few opportunities they were able to find a way to have some privacy together indoors at the academy.cap to cover his unwashed hair. but had no qualms about performing oral sex. Before he had a chance to savor the memory of his conversations with Jessi. or unknowingly influenced her to renegotiate the boundaries she‘d set for herself. He wondered for a moment whether he‘d ever pushed Jessi to go faster than she wanted. he probably wasn‘t qualified to offer an opinion on this particular matter. he had been a virgin ―only by Clintonian standards. One thing was clear: he couldn‘t recall a time when Jessi had said anything that left him feeling unqualified to comment in the way Jess seemed able to do. there‘s no going back to being a cucumber. you can‘t un-experience it. once you‘ve had someone else make you cum for the first time. His sponsor always insisted that.‖ she went on. hadn‘t been willing to have intercourse. It‘s very upsetting. Prior to that semester. ―But I‘m very sensitive to the harm of pressuring people into becoming sexually active before they‘re ready. he wondered if maybe Jess took the things she read too literally. intercourse or not. when they were actually coerced against their own will. They didn‘t have intercourse that first night. Sitting un-showered in business calc in his day-old outfit and ball-cap. and had explained to her as they lay in her bed together wearing only underwear that he didn‘t want to move too fast. talking for hours about society and philosophy.‖ as his sponsor put it. His ex. Once you‘ve become a pickle.‖ Sergei nodded. but he thought that. should be memorable. he was pulled back into the present moment by the sensation of the tip of Jess‘ finger running along the inside of the elastic band of his underwear. he wondered 34 . His first time should be important. Sergei considered himself a virgin after the first night he‘d spent with Jess.
His sponsor also asked. he wasn‘t able to pay much attention to the lecture that morning or follow the example problems being worked out on the blackboard. though. His sponsor had made his position on ―lies of omission‖ clear before Sergei picked up his keytag for thirty days clean.‖ he asked. ―Is she just a means to an end. He did find 35 .‖ Sergei answered. and Corndog shook his head in disgust. ―I care about her a lot. if Sergei was spending time with Jess because he cared for her or simply because she fulfilled a need. ―or can your appreciation for who she is as a person stand as an end in itself?‖ It was a phone conversation Sergei remembered well. The professor worked out examples of compound interest problems on the board. He might be able to avoid the difficult conversation altogether by not mentioning anything about it to his sponsor. He was too busy working out a problem of his own. or by lying outright.‖ He missed the old problem sets from his algebra competitions. trying to sort out the events of the previous night in anticipation of his imminent conversation with his sponsor. and pressed the button to open and close the CD tray a few times. He pressed the power button on the stereo remote. annoyed that they called this stuff ―math. pausing for emphasis in a way that might‘ve been more effective if he hadn‘t made a habit of doing it so frequently. As long as he didn‘t let it get in the way of his schoolwork and his stepwork. Sergei tried to think of how he could best fit the details into a narrative in which the choices he‘d made the night before didn‘t seem to be in such clear conflict with the types of suggestions he had come to expect from his sponsor regarding romantic involvements. As it turned out. Sergei couldn‘t seem to slip back into the role of Corndog in math class that morning. His sponsor had a knack for irritating questions that made it difficult for him to remain blissfully ignorant to the deeper implications of some of the choices he made. the conversation with his sponsor wasn‘t nearly as painful as he‘d worried it might be. but he knew that would never fly. whether the students sitting near him were suspicious. watched the lights come one. fidgeting with the remote control to his stereo as he pictured Jess.whether he still smelled like sex. there shouldn‘t be a problem.
Sergei was still unsure of her intentions. I don‘t know who is. Jess was true to her word about not pressuring him to move more quickly than he wanted to move. She told him stories about some of the English faculty. Jess stopped talking at some point and simply gazed back at Sergei with the same admiration with which he‘d been staring at her. but he didn‘t bother to question her pronouncements. The second evening she did the same. traced the curve of her jaw. I 36 . And he wasn‘t crazy about the way she shared in meetings. But she was very attractive. Each of those first three nights. stroking the inside of his palm with the tip of her thumb.‖ and ―if she‘s not the poster-child for codependent sponsorship. they began by sitting with each other in her papasan chair. but with people from meetings: ―the main thing that keeps him clean is giving creepy hugs to all the girls after each meeting.‖ He found her self-assured tone off-putting. always finding ways to couch her message of hope for the newcomer in some narrative that pointed back to just how smart and hip she was.Jess‘ preoccupation with all of the politically correct gender studies stuff tiresome. Each of those nights.‖ Jess said. ―If I felt like reaffirming patriarchal order.‖ and ―the only reason she even teaches is because it gives her a fresh room full of people to whom she can condescend each semester. and then turned his hand to let the backs of his fingers brush down her neck. He ran his fingertips along her cheek. He wanted very much to believe it. much like he‘d had with Jessi. She reached up and took his hand in hers and held it to her cheek. and then added. but he tried to see past it and view her as a multi-dimensional person.‖ he answered. She must have either run out of steam or just finally took notice of his prolonged silence. The first night.‖ Sergei suspected the people she talked about were probably more complex than she made them out to be. even as they cuddled together in silence. he had no difficulties overlooking her sense of self-assuredness. ―It‘s amazing. each time reducing the person to a single representative quality or trait.‖ She continued to run her fingers along the inside of his hand. ―I think my sense of appreciation for her is honorable. ―Your hands are so soft. running his fingers through her hair and playing with her earlobes. like ―he‘s just stuck on old-school Marxism. Resting in the papasan chair with his arm around her. and they had an undeniable chemistry with each other.
‖ Sergei made a conscious effort to avoid rolling his eyes. primarily to prove that 37 . only sleeping in his own dorm a couple times a week. No woman who struck him as intelligent.‖ ―Oh. ―but just so you know when the time comes. ―Do you want to get in bed? I promise I‘ll be on best behavior?‖ Her best behavior. oral sex. Sergei hadn‘t been expecting anything like that. ―Oh. In the midst of their naked passion. He‘d never spent time with a woman who was so forward. he was late. ―but I certainly don‘t need an entire bag of condoms for myself. Sergei made it to two.‖ Between laughs. preclude nudity. ―I know we‘re not there yet. He gave her a slightly puzzled look. whispered something to him. from the task at hand. I have a whole bag of condoms in my closet.might say they feel soft as girls‘ hands.‖ she laughed. momentarily. When he did show up.‖ she said. and then she took his index finger into her mouth. it‘s not like that. or anything else he might have been able to imagine with his limited bedroom experience. between nibbles on his earlobe. ―We hand them out on the quad every month.‖ The thought of a ―whole bag of condoms‖ was enough to distract Sergei. anyway. she laid the groundwork for what would happen the following night. and he had trouble processing all the sensations she was causing. Jess curled three of his fingers down into his palm. maybe I will?‖ For the rest of the semester. he discovered. It didn‘t. Jess sucked gently on his finger. on the other hand. sometimes three of the four meetings of his business calc class. He stayed with Jess nearly every night. simply meant respecting his boundary regarding intercourse.‖ he said. she reached down between his legs and took hold of his erection. ―That‘s probably a good thing. The second night he stayed with her.‖ ―I may be liberated.‖ she said. since the uptight campus administrators won‘t let the health center give them to students. she brought her mouth to his ear and. ―But I suppose with you around.
because they wanted to avoid the stigma and attention the twelve-steppers put on members who dated each other. whenever he wasn‘t working at the café. as he wouldn‘t have wanted them to know he was with someone who constantly talked that way. They didn‘t ride to meetings together. Then again. they rarely engaged in the same conversations among the recovering crowd. or give off any other signs they were a couple. but she seemed to do it across the board: ―O‘Brien‘s has. and Jess often replicated the events that had taken place the first time they went out together after a meeting. hands down. regardless of whether the conversations were divided by gender. and he was convinced that with any topic. She seemed to know that it both turned him on and pissed him off at the same time. He wouldn‘t have admitted it to his sponsor. She sat directly across from Sergei whenever possible and played footsie with him under the table as he tried to maintain conversation with the others. The main distinction between a blow job and intercourse. Much like that first night. It was just like her habit of pinning people down to a single defining factor.‖ He was glad they didn‘t tell others about their involvement with each other.‖ and ―That group hasn‘t put out a single tolerable song since their second album. she could always be counted on to make at least one definitive statement about the final truth on the matter before the conversation could be considered complete. He did tend to eavesdrop on whichever conversation she was in any time he happened to hear her talking. the best pastrami anywhere in the city. sit next to each other. Maybe he was the only one bothered by it? 38 . but his first experience with intercourse sold him on the idea that he‘d lost his virginity when he got his first blow job. Sergei‘s first experience with intercourse happened the third time he stayed over with her. Sergei went to the same meetings as Jess at least three or four nights each week. no one else seemed to mind. and no one talked badly about her on the rare nights he was out without her.he was capable of doing so. and they always met back at her place after returning to campus for sex that Sergei could only describe as great. in his experience. Sergei and Jess still went out for food or coffee with other addicts after their meetings. was a different orifice and a different body fluid.
It would at least give him the option of blaming the break-up on circumstances: ―I‘m just not comfortable with the idea of trying to maintain a longdistance relationship. and Jess was almost ready to graduate. The fact that they kept things quiet among their recovering friends led him 39 . but he was resistant. One night.They didn‘t spend a great deal of time alone together outside of her bedroom. and he felt he was reaching the limits of his ability to endure her company. if given time to. over six hours away. Sergei had met the guy a few times before. and he considered the time off a relief. he was nearly done with his freshman year. Sergei fell asleep with two fingers inside Jess. and I was hoping your girlfriend could feed my fish. after she had already made him cum. She didn‘t talk to him for two days. They had never talked about their relationship in terms of labels. can you do me a favor? I‘m going out of town for a week. Once or twice he gave in and participated wholeheartedly in conversation with her. which would be a convenient way for him to avoid the trouble of having to break up with her. He was pretty sure that Jess would move back home. Sergei‘s waning enthusiasm for spending time with Jess made itself apparent in her dorm room. By that time. Sergei didn‘t feel like he had spent enough thinking about how he should approach his conversation with Jess when her neighbor inadvertently forced his hand one night. too. ―Hey man. but this time the neighbor stopped him. Sergei listened attentively when Jess spoke but rarely had much to say that she wouldn‘t cover on her own. usually by passing in the hallway on the way to or from the men‘s bathroom. and talk between them grew to be very much one-sided. They met that way again one morning. Could you ask her?‖ It took Sergei a moment to realize the neighbor was referring to Jess. feeling compelled to play devil‘s advocate against some radical feminist talking point or obscure slant on recovery literature she inherited through her sponsorship family. She occasionally prodded him to get him to talk more.‖ They hadn‘t talked about her plans. and he‘d never really thought of her as his girlfriend. though.
The only time he‘d seen her get emotional about her own life was when she‘d told him the story of her grandparents passing.‖ ―Um. He definitely wouldn‘t have figured her for someone to simply try to stall. much less someone with whom he‘d never had any sort of discussion about relationship status. or one that would end up having favorable results for her.‖ Jess didn‘t respond. sure. Sergei had no idea. On some level. her expression seemed slightly affected to him. I‘ll ask her. ―It kinda got me thinking.‘‖ he said as he crawled back into bed with her. It was rare that he ever saw her look sad. maybe we should talk about what we‘re doing.‖ she responded. like when you graduate and stuff. You know. she‘d surely already seen it coming for weeks. but instead just stared at Sergei. as 40 . I don‘t want to force you if you‘re not ready.‖ He was a bit surprised by her response. It was barely past midnight. they would be called ―lovers. She was silent for a moment. if that‘s okay.‖ Sergei answered. She couldn‘t seriously think it was too late. unless you‘re not ready to talk about it. Sergei decided he should talk to Jess sooner rather than later. I mean.‖ ―Okay. Her hesitation to talk about made him think she must have already seen the writing on the wall. he suspected that if he‘d reached this point in thinking about their relationship on his own. she didn‘t anticipate a pleasant conversation. and what we‘re gonna do. and then she said. Jess may have been predictable in a number of conversations.to think that if they had to put a label on what they were doing. He figured there wasn‘t much sense in trying to plan what to say.‖ he said. He had never broken up with anyone before. ―Your neighbor just called you my ‗girlfriend. ―Do you think it‘s something we need to talk about at this hour? We both have to get up in the morning. In that case. After that uncomfortable encounter. mostly when people in meetings shared especially sad stories. ―And I would really like to get a sense of where you‘re at with things. but when it came to their relationship. ―It‘s really not that late.
‖ he said. he didn‘t know how the conversation should begin. ―My sponsor already thinks I should‘ve initiated this conversation a while ago. otherwise I‘d have a different sponsor. ―Hey.‖ ―Oh. He wondered. For the first time. her sad expression seemed genuine. She had already talked to her sponsor about it. After all. Now that they‘d agreed to talk. hoping she‘d take the hint. after waiting slightly longer than he was comfortable with. Sergei ducked and dodged most of his sponsor‘s inquiries about the situation with Jess.‖ she said with a sigh. So you‘ve already talked to her about this?‖ Sergei had been under the impression that Jess was talking to her sponsor about the relationship as rarely as he was with his sponsor. not moving back home like I talked about before.‖ he said. He wondered what prompted Jess to talk to her sponsor about things. he felt a little bad about not wanting to be with her. ―Well. look. but rather that she felt she should be. ―I always appreciate her input. so maybe he could let her start. ―There‘s no sense putting this off. and pained him. ―I‘ve been meaning to tell you that I‘m thinking about staying in town when I finish. ―We can talk about this later.‖ she said. for a moment. This time. Following the conversations with his sponsor about getting the relationship started. if she thought that by feigning emotion in his presence she might be able to inspire him to become emotionally intimate with her. He figured his sponsor would take issue with the fact that he continued to sleep with her in spite of not feeling all that enamored with her. ―How did that conversation go?‖ ―It went well.though she wasn‘t actually moved to sadness by telling the story.‖ ―That makes sense.‖ ―No. He stayed silent for a moment. I think.‖ 41 . it‘s okay. though. like she was doing her best to approximate a look of sadness. the sex apparently hadn‘t done it.‖ she finally said. You‘re not ready.
‖ ―Oh. At least if she left town they wouldn‘t have to see each other anymore. I don‘t see much of a future for the two of us. Every 42 . I honestly didn‘t think things were going anywhere. ―Really. one of the projects that wouldn‘t be due for a while. I mean it.‖ she went on. you know?‖ ―It‘s okay. her face bent with genuine concern. still avoiding his Russian motion verbs. As the implications began to settle in. Her emotion seemed far more sincere than the time she‘d described her grandmother‘s passing. the other was memorizing Russian proverbs that would be on the final exam.‖ Jess said. we agreed that we would be exclusive with each other.Sergei nodded. ―When we started hanging out. ―But I think it‘s only fair that I let you know now that even though I‘m not leaving town.‖ Sergei said. as he‘d already tried that trick on other occasions with limited success. He wasn‘t crazy about the idea. It was fun while it lasted.‖ Sergei said. Sergei was impressed. but I still thought I‘d be leaving town. ―I just haven‘t been feeling it lately. Not what he‘d expected. She reached up and put her hand on his cheek. He considered switching over to one of his other Russian assignments. either. One of the projects involved finding a story from a Russian news source to give a report on in front of the class. ―I‘m sorry. I would‘ve told you sooner. he thought it might be even harder to break things off than he‘d hoped. though. anyway. to see if the variety would inspire him to stay focused. Not as an exclusive couple. right?‖ Sergei snapped out of a reverie and found himself still sitting in the living room. they could just have a clean break.
nearly two years prior. you‘ll become a cow. the mice will feel free. 43 . at least in the sense that addicts no longer had to be condemned to the miserable existence of active addiction because another way of life was possible. He watched her clack away at the keys on her Macbook and wondered if she was still writing emails to her students or if she was working on her dissertation. a week or two after she‘d stopped and asked how to get to the FLB. and he got the impression she didn‘t remember him. She reminded him of it often. Some of the Russian proverbs were very close to their English counterparts when translated. such as орбатого могила исправит—only the grave cures the hunchback. it will not get up again. Sergei had thought of the sentence ―you can get there from here‖ on a number of occasions. which kept Akiko in his mind. The only Japanese proverb he could recall Akiko ever telling him was that if you lie down after eating. which was sometimes mentioned in reference to drug addicts—once an addict. One of his friends who‘d spent some time in the Middle East said that the analogous saying in that part of the world was something like: ―once the camel lies down at your door. He was pleasantly surprised to see her again. The moment he got in his car to go pick her up.Friday they spent the last five or ten minutes of class practicing the proverbs aloud together before getting out for the weekend. That one stuck with Sergei because it corresponded to the English saying that a leopard cannot change its spots. She had come into the café one afternoon. he was overwhelmed by the feeling that he had made a big mistake asking her out.‖ Sergei didn‘t get it. He reluctantly let his mind wander back to the conversation he needed to have with Akiko. Kuri-chan put down the list of Russian proverbs. Sergei thought that was more fitting for addicts than the leopard saying. He briefly recalled driving to pick Akiko up for their first date. He smiled at her as he took her order. In the time since she‘d asked him for directions. finally accepting that he probably wouldn‘t be getting much Russian done. Another saying he heard sometimes in meetings that was similar to the leopard saying was that a pickle can never be a cucumber again. like е кота мышам ра дол е—when the cat‘s away. Others were quite different. always an addict. People often shared about how recovery changed that. as well.
Kuri-chan raised his voice enough to be heard over the steaming milk and asked Akiko her name. but for some reason he felt compelled to keep talking to Akiko. putting her billfold in her purse. closing the cash register.‖ she said. and momentarily considered asking her if she was familiar with Haruki Murakami and his writing. if she wanted. and the one-way streets confused me. he could see that she was trying to figure out what he meant. and handed him a copy from the portfolio she carried. He had recently read an interview of one of Murakami‘s translators.‖ ―Oh. I was running late that day.‖ He was usually too self-conscious to take advantage of being the coffee guy as a way to strike up conversation with pretty customers. who‘d said that Murakami‘s voice in his original Japanese works had Western influences that couldn‘t be adequately captured in the English translations. he stumbled his way through a conversation that might have looked to an outside observer like a suave pick-up. Not only would it be too difficult to try to explain. While making her latte. He recognized her name as Japanese. in microbiology. so he‘d be happy to read her work and offer some comments. After a moment he heard her gasp very quietly. As Kuri-chan poured milk over the espresso. Akiko said sure. As she put her change back into her billfold. though. ―Yes. obviously just remembering that he‘d given her directions. Completely unscripted. good. once he‘d given her change and a receipt.―Were you able to find the FLB okay?‖ he asked. He told her he was studying writing. so he settled for the more pedestrian line of questioning and asked what she was studying. She explained that it 44 . Akiko explained that she was working on her dissertation for a Ph.D. Your directions were helpful. How do you translate an Eastern text with Western influences into a Western language and still convey that the original text had a Westernness that distinguished it from other Eastern texts? Kuri-chan decided not to ask about that. That was easy. He didn‘t like the idea of repeating the same gesture. but just a few semesters earlier he had struck up conversation with a German girl by asking her about something he read in his Nietzsche class. ―Glad I could help.‖ he smiled. ―Thank you.
Sitting across the table from each other. Kuri-chan and Akiko had no problem finding things to talk about. but not much had changed.‖ she said. He had already started to ask the question before he even realized what he was doing. 45 . he feared that their cultural gap would also be too much. from Okinawa. Even if he‘d had more extensive interactions with John‘s fiancée. scrawling her digits in pencil at the top of the first page. She nodded politely. As he drove to her house that Friday night with absolutely nothing intelligent to say about her paper. an appetizer and glasses of iced tea between them. before they‘d gotten engaged. He had flirted with plenty of the Asian women who were regular customers at the café before. so he‘d just have to wait and see. ―Sure. but he wasn‘t able to make any kind of sense of the abundant technical jargon packed into her dense research paper about Pasteurella multocida. Kuri-chan was by no means ignorant when it came to science.was a slightly older draft. And he had no idea whether Akiko was skilled enough in English to hold up her end of a discussion either.‖ Akiko had responded. He knew his older brother John‘s fiancée. ―Here‘s my number. but he‘d never thought seriously about going any further than harmless flirtation. He asked about her family and about where she‘d grown up. Kuri-chan only met John‘s fiancée once. Next was the moment he regretted as he drove to her house: the moment he asked if she would be interested in getting together Friday and talk about the paper over dinner. when she joined John on a visit home during leave. and he explained to her that he was in recovery because his period of teenage experimentation had yielded some conclusive results about his inability to manage his intake of illicit substances. Kuri-chan didn‘t think it would‘ve helped him be more at ease with the prospect of trying to hold up his end of dinner conversation with Akiko. but he also worried people might start to think ―yellow fever‖ ran in the family or something. It was incredibly rare that he asked a girl out before he was absolutely certain of a positive response. he surprised himself with his uncharacteristic brashness. would be thrilled if he dated a Japanese woman.
‖ she added. They continued chatting long after their dinner plates had been removed. He was most profoundly affected by the handful of early-morning train rides into Tokyo from Akiko‘s rural hometown an hour or so north of the city. program. Kuri-chan told them the story of how big a mistake he thought he‘d made as he drove to pick her up that first night. Akiko told Kuri-chan about her first year in the States at an intensive ESL program on the east coast. She wasn‘t the type of ESL speaker to have a word like ‗eloquent‘ accessible for spontaneous conversation. or any time since. not at that first date. They stopped for a cup of tea at the café before Kuri-chan dropped her off at home. and before they knew it the restaurant was closing. when they traveled to Japan and he met Akiko‘s parents. then farmland. That wasn‘t something he would‘ve expected from her. It seemed like a premeditated comment.‖ He looked at her with a mild surprise. too. ―I got ya now – I don‘t need to be eloquent anymore. Months later.‖ In spite of the time that had passed since that trip to Japan. ―you were also much more eloquent back then. the train grew more crowded.and she congratulated him when he told her he would soon reach his five-year anniversary of getting clean. one she‘d been waiting for the right opportunity to make. but with each successive stop. and about how nervous she was to be a TA for undergraduate biology courses.D.‖ he teased. Akiko‘s head resting on his shoulder as he watched the rapidly alternating views out the window: farmland. ―You know. then city. In spite of the train car filling to standing room only. about the lab politics she had to deal with as part of her Ph. ―Whatever. Something as simple as a particular kind of sound could transport Kuri-chan back into that train car. the only sounds were the high hum of the train speeding down the tracks and 46 . They ordered dessert. The train car was nearly empty when they boarded. and walking her up to the door and giving her a kiss on the cheek before he said good-night. Akiko told her parents that Kuri-chan had never said anything about her paper. Kuri-chan still vividly recalled the feelings and sensations he experienced during their not-quite two-week stay. and the views of farmland grew shorter while the views of city lengthened.
the musical tones played each time the train came to a stop at another station. and effortlessly used both hands to apply her make-up. During the last of their morning train rides. He welcomed the break from the homework he couldn‘t seem to focus on anyway. or failing to place one when it was. but he didn‘t want to disturb Akiko. *** 47 . Kuri-chan thought of Japan as the type of country where a person could really get there from here. to the old capital city Kyoto. her legs carefully positioned so she could keep her balance with the train‘s varying speeds. all from a station two blocks from her parents‘ house in a rural farming community north of Tokyo. to the big Buddha at Kamakura. he suggested maybe it was time to start making dinner. Kuri-chan might‘ve offered the girl his seat. and after correcting a couple of awkward sounding sentences in Akiko‘s email. but occasionally a sentence or two with awkward ESL construction found its way into her writing. most commonly in the form of placing an article in front of a noun where none was needed. She spoke English with no noticeable accent. Akiko stood up from the couch and brought her Macbook over to Kuri-chan. a young woman stood directly in front of Kuri-chan. He‘d said to Akiko at one point during their trip. asking him to check the email she was about to send to her students. ―All trains lead to Tokyo. She‘d clearly done it countless times before. as though he could never fully understand because he was gaijin. don‘t they?‖ She had responded with the same look of annoyed bewilderment she usually got when he tried to make an observation about the way things work in Japan. She regularly had Kuri-chan read through her emails to find those minor errors before she sent them on to her students. He and Akiko had taken the train to downtown Tokyo. who was fast asleep like nearly half of the other passengers.
‖ Corndog filled out the application much like the way he‘d taken the standardized tests. but I think it would be a great opportunity for you. Why don‘t you go ahead and fill this out.Discovering his knack for crafting clear and understandable prose had been one of the first times Corndog felt a nudge away from math and toward writing. ―But I do have one for this math and science academy up by Chicago. made them look as though they‘d been put on the wall in another decade.‖ Corndog said. so he agreed to fill out an application. ―I really think maybe you should start thinking about applying to the university lab high school. so if you screw it up you‘ll be letting everyone down. The posters were colorful and cartoonish in a way that. You‘d have to work out a way to get there and back every day. it might be a good fit. as it sounded to him like ―this is something you should be able to do. Corndog went to meet with the guidance counselor to see if he could fill out one of the personality quizzes that was supposed to help students decide what sort of career to pursue. The guidance counselor gave him the test and. ―Here‘s my test. along with the heavy dust. holding the scan-tron sheet out over the large brown institutional desk cluttered with various papers. With your math scores. He looked around the room at the dusty motivational posters on the wall while the guidance counselor rifled through papers looking for the application. You have a lot of potential. ―I was just looking over your test scores from the last state assessments. The guidance counselor took the form from Corndog and put it in an envelope. in the twenty minutes it took Corndog to fill in the appropriate bubbles on the answer sheet.‖ In spite of that. the idea of going to a different school seemed like it could be interesting.‖ Corndog disliked that word.‖ he said.‖ the guidance counselor finally said. enjoying the satisfaction that came with putting the correct information into each of the 48 . and I‘ll get you one of the other applications when I find them. ―I can‘t seem to find the applications right now. At his English teacher‘s suggestion. and they‘re quite impressive. reviewed Corndog‘s student records.
The letter invited him to come visit in the spring. where he seemed to be able to find the right spot to gently pull so the messy tangle of string could be taken apart and stretched out along the table. the one he submitted and the one he never had a chance to submit. He looked forward to the chance to try something different. Mr. and getting high beforehand only heightened the pleasure of the experience. Corndog would catch a ride with his friend Jake over to the high school for math team practice. The guidance counselor never came through with an application for the other school. just tightening the knot. tour the campus and the dorms. when he received an acceptance letter from the academy midway through his freshman year. Solving the algebraic equations in the problem sets was one of Corndog‘s favorite pastimes. high or not. Up to that point. He sometimes thought about it like untying a knot. as his primary sources of stimulation in his home town were algebra problems and bong loads.boxes and blanks. after which Corndog and Jake would sneak into the unmonitored upstairs bathroom to share a cigarette. Practice consisted of forty-five minutes of problem sets before first period. for finding the right expressions to begin unraveling the math problems. Jake wouldn‘t understand. some of the other students on the math team yanked and tugged on different edges of the string. he hadn‘t even realized that the academy was only a three-year school. Corndog had all but forgotten both applications. Being stoned helped him reach a level where he felt as though he was nearly unconscious as he meandered his way through the step-by-step process of translating each element of an equation into an equivalent symbolic expression. Anderson suggested at one point that Corndog consider studying computer 49 . generating one new algebraic equation after another. Corndog didn‘t tell Jake that he smoked pot before math team practice. He put his completed application and his release form for the school to share his test scores in the mail that same afternoon. and begin taking placement tests for his classes. who was a senior at the time. until he finally arrived at the desired mathematical statement. Corndog began most mornings his freshman year by getting high with his older brother John. After smoking a few hitters with John. Corndog seemed to have a special talent.
They made eye contact a few times. Corndog stayed close and laughed at all her jokes. Maybe he was imagining things. Corndog found himself enamored with one of the students on the student host committee. Jessi smiled a lot and joked around with the group. When he went to the academy for a weekend visit and orientation. and then through one of the dorm buildings.programming. past the tennis courts and soccer field. When they passed the soccer field. After the tour finished. In algebra. Corndog and Jake narrowly avoided getting caught smoking pot in a McDonald‘s bathroom. After the tests had been administered. He fondly recalled writing simple BASIC programs on his grandpa‘s Commodore 64 in the fourth grade. but because something about her delivery. and by the end of the tour it seemed almost as though she was directing her tour monologue directly at him. which proved to be good practice for his current hobby of writing games for his graphing calculator during especially boring algebra lessons. She waited a moment before clarifying that the school didn‘t have a football team. He stayed near the head of the group as she led them through the main building. and not to impress her. Jessi had fair skin and curly red hair. but before the awards were announced. the academy had never been defeated in American-style football. it was simply expressed in different terms. so they could go with her to the girls‘ soccer game if they wanted. They still made it to the awards ceremony without incident. not because they were funny. made him feel at ease. and her presence in general. Corndog came to understand. and she was the student host responsible for giving a tour to the group Corndog was assigned to. she explained that while the soccer team had a mostly winning record. the formulation of each statement contained within it the logical imperative for its own next statement. She commented as they passed the cafeteria that only three students were known to have died from eating the food. The other students in the tour group didn‘t seem to notice. The problem was always equivalent to the solution. or go back to the visitors‘ 50 . Jessi told the students they were free for the evening. After earning first place and his new nickname at regionals. he went on to take seventh place at the state competition. as his skills with logic might translate well into coding language.
When Jessi talked about them.‖ Corndog told her. the worlds of those novels were fascinating. but he hadn‘t been the type of reader on the first read to make correlations between the books and real-world situations.‖ ―That‘s too bad. where the home team was already beginning to do their stretches for the final game of the season. religion. but this would form the basis of his relationship with Jessi. and philosophy. but Corndog decided to stay with Jessi and go to the soccer game. though. That soon led to discussions about some of the novels that had shaped their respective worldviews. as they took seats in the mostly empty bleachers. but moving on to books. Most of the students decided to go back to the dorms. Jessi didn‘t like all the running involved in soccer. Don‘t see much time on the field. For Corndog. politics. yeah.‖ she said. beginning with talk of where she was originally from and what her interests were.dorms and relax. Corndog did his best to keep up conversation with her. Jessi was able to tell Corndog about some of the instructors she had that year and what he could expect from various classes. Jessi explained that her roommate was on the soccer team. ―Well. so she had been to most of the games that year. Being two years ahead of him. ―Do you play any sports?‖ she asked. her eyes wide with enthusiasm about the power of the ideas she read about to change the world. especially dystopian novels like 1984 and Brave New World. He was glad she didn‘t seem to treat him like he was just making excuses for not being more athletic. she became animated and expressive. The two walked past the dorms back out to the soccer field. so her sports activity was limited to softball. seeming genuine. Corndog didn‘t realize it at the time. I‘m on the football team. so when I do it‘s a little hard for me to remember what I‘m supposed to be doing. ―but I missed some practices early in the season so this year I‘ve been on second string the whole time. 51 .
―So are you going to be with us tomorrow? I mean. and the furthest from the visitors‘ dorm where Corndog would be staying the night. but it also has a lot of potential for subversion. as it had gotten dark by the end of the game. Technology might be a tool created by the system. ―Hearing the news broadcasters repeat the same phrases over and over while flashing pictures of things we‘re supposed to feel strongly about. Now we don‘t have to go through the corporate filtration system to be heard. you and the rest of the student hosts. and they continued to chat as the other team arrived and did their stretches. Corndog offered to walk Jessi back to her dorm. the game began. now that the Internet can make it possible for everyone to have a voice. He began to feel cold by the time they approached her building. and the game ended.‖ he asked as they stood at her door. though.‖ she went on.‖ he said. I notice a lot of that on TV. artificially lit soccer fields and wandered up the concrete path back toward the dorms.‖ Corndog nodded again.―The people in control are completely pulling the wool over our eyes all the time. ―Yeah. beginning to see her point. and Corndog breathed in the cool spring air and the smell of freshly mowed grass.‖ Jessi said to Corndog. every student at the academy was given their own individual email address. whether it‘s news or so-called entertainment. but our generation. ―we‘ve got a chance to do something about it. Jessi‘s passion was contagious. Watching TV. They didn‘t speak. Corndog still found it difficult to imagine people in his hometown even getting on the Internet. It reminds me so much of newspeak. let alone going online to research or discuss radical ideas about subverting the dominant paradigm. as they watched the soccer teams make their way back and forth across the field in front of them. 52 . Sure. it all just pushes us back into the herd. the last of the seven dorm buildings. but he wasn‘t very sure about that.‖ ―I know people say this every other decade. so Internet accessibility was definitely on the rise for certain populations. Corndog nodded. They left the bright.
we could probably use someone there to make a bunch of corny jokes about the tests we‘re taking. He felt like he could sit somewhere with Jessi and talk for hours. There had been a few times when he‘d had long conversations with cute girls back home. ―Did your parents bring you? Are you leaving right after the exams?‖ ―Yeah. and only when he was high. reaching into her other pocket and pulling out a slip of paper. ―I always wanted a pen pal. noticing for the first time just how green her eyes were.‖ 53 .‖ She reached in her back pocket and pulled out her key card. Then she smiled. yeah. you say that. okay. but only over the phone. He laughed. so we have to get on the road as early as we can.‖ he said. and my address.‖ ―That sounds great.―No.‖ ―Yeah. ―but we have to be in the building by ten o‘clock or our key cards won‘t work.‖ He looked at Jessi and tried to remember a time he‘d ever felt so comfortable and easy around a pretty girl. You can write me letters over the summer so we can continue our conversation.‖ he laughed. but you laughed at more of my jokes than anyone else in the group today.‖ Corndog said.‖ she said. you‘re going to be doing your placement exams all day. ―Let me give you my phone number in Chicago. some kind of receipt. my mom brought me. that‘s all. ―Here. She smiled again. ―When‘s your curfew?‖ ―We don‘t have to be in our rooms until midnight on Fridays. It was only a little after nine.‖ ―No comment.‖ she said. you know. and added: ―You might have known that if you‘d been listening today!‖ She lightly slapped him on the front of his shoulder with the back of her hand. and she has a shift at work tomorrow night.‖ she said. but he couldn‘t seem to say anything more. ―Well. for the record. ―Oh.
and that he should consider putting his ideas together in some type of manifesto. She sent him a postcard while bicycling across Iowa with her family. about some of the ideas he had in response to their previous conversation.‖ she said. He wrote to her about the Vonnegut novels he read over the summer and how they captivated him. told him to have a safe trip home. and swiped her key card to go inside. She‘d drawn a little heart over the ‗i‘ in Jessi. something that probably would have annoyed him if done by anyone else. Having her read his words was a sense of intimacy he‘d never experienced before. or that he knew Jessi would read it word for word. especially the ones that seemed to do little more than take up space. Corndog watched as she walked through the lobby. She wrote that she really enjoyed his writing.―Here.‖ She hugged him briefly. tearing off the part she‘d written on and handing it to him. Corndog sent Jessi letters from his downstate hometown every week. He admired her deeply for her concerted efforts to respond with letters of comparable length.‖ she said. They talked once or twice on the phone. but more often he wrote her. paragraph. and I expect to hear from you soon. Writing letters felt to Corndog like exposing a side of himself he didn‘t show other people. then let go. Over the summer. sometimes every few days. He found a singular sense of fulfillment in writing letters to Jessi—starting with one idea at the beginning of the letter and following it over the course of a paragraph or a few pages. and page. He couldn‘t decide what was more exciting about that idea: that he would be able to say he wrote a manifesto. ―You‘re starting to look cold.‖ Corndog took the piece of paper and looked at it. Jessi‘s filler sentences seemed nearly as meaningful as 54 . ―I should go in now. pen on paper. ―Have a safe trip home tomorrow. even though she obviously gave more time and attention to decorating the margins of the pages than she did to some of the sentences she wrote. swiped her key card at the entrance to her wing of the building. the ideas growing and evolving with each additional word. from a city whose name was the same as Corndog‘s surname. and yet he felt safe when he imagined Jessi reading them. every sentence. and disappeared.
but without the hippies. Emails wouldn‘t have been able to compare to Jessi‘s letters. This other feeling when he thought about Jessi was lightness in his limbs and a tingling in his brain. knowing that she would sit and read his words. Corndog smoked lots of pot and went to occasional keg parties in the woods or in abandoned barns. in case the mailman might be carrying a letter from her. horribly upset. and she wrote about how wonderful it would be to break free of the system and start new. because to Corndog. different from the satisfaction of watching the ideas grow and take shape and become something larger than the words on the page. Corndog never bothered to tell Jessi that he felt a more intimate connection with her than he ever had with anyone before. She sent him a note one week from the Sunday school class she supervised. though she wrote a fair amount. cutesy pastel stationery with borders and trim she drew in herself with special markers. the kinds that came with tips shaped like hearts and stars. She never wrote as much as he hoped she would.the lines that contained actual substance. As he wrote each of his letters. They both had email accounts provided by the school. anyway. Corndog loved her paper selections. He felt the same reading her letters. She wrote in praise of his ideas and his writing. in a way that he hadn‘t even felt when he read compulsively as a child. he experienced a unique sensation. To occupy his free time that summer when he wasn‘t writing to Jessi and reading her letters. 55 . freely stringing together words and ideas the way he used to lay out the variables and expressions that made up his algebra solutions. the filler meant she wanted to keep the dialogue alive even when she had nothing to say. like on a commune. though. She numbered her pages inconsistently. Each day he waited until the mailman came before going to meet his friends to get high. and she folded the pages in ways that made them bulkier in the envelope than they needed to be. but neither had parents who were willing to pay for a modem or let their children tie up the phone lines for hours at a time just to send messages to one another. Her letters weren‘t nonstop sunshine.
as long as he could stick with her.‖ Corndog admired her passion. I don‘t want to forget. *** 56 . He daydreamed just as easily about running away together as he did about staying in the civilized world. and even game shows! It‘s gross! Please. to make things better. but most of all he just liked the idea of continuing on with Jessi. talking about their subversive countercultural ideals and about how good it would be to get away.―We‘re filling their heads with the lies so early. and agreed with her point that it would be a shame to forget what it was like to see the world that way.‖ she wrote. or generally to like-minded individuals who recognized the inherent flaws of civilization. he was on board. or of finding a way to shake society free of its self-destructive tendencies. He wondered if the ―we‖ she wrote about was meant to refer only to her and him. TV commercials. I don‘t want to be another cog in the machine. He didn‘t mention to her that deep down. he was okay with the idea of civilization going along exactly as it was. In his final letter to Jessi before he began school at the academy at the end of that summer. ―The myths we all buy into seem so harmless. church. and running a quiet little used bookstore or coffee shop together where people could sit around day and night. please—let‘s not forget this when we grow up. I wish we could just run away. and about what they could do together to change things. Corndog wrote that he would love to have coffee with her sometime when they got back to school. We hear it everywhere—school. He liked the idea of running away to live at peace with nature. As long as it was with her. sharing ideas about what was right and what was wrong. Let‘s not be part of the ‗real world‘ when we finally have a chance to get out. and find a place where people don‘t think humans own the planet and get to do whatever they want to it. but only because we‘re all fed the same crap before we have a chance to learn anything different.
He certainly didn‘t want to be the disruptive element that upset the balance. Sure. wasn‘t particularly spacious. but he couldn‘t see a way to step in that wouldn‘t disrupt their finely choreographed movements.Kuri-chan stood at the kitchen counter and sliced the vegetables for dinner as Akiko washed the rice. Not by American standards. The kitchen space in their home. and he hadn‘t given her sufficient reason to do so. As Kuri-chan sat at the round dining table. Akiko started the rice maker and went back to the living room as Kuri-chan went on to season the chicken. when Akiko‘s brother once visited. he tried to look for ways he could help out. This didn‘t stop Akiko. It was the same sort of look one adult might give another upon seeing someone else‘s child blatantly wipe snot on the wall in an elevator. he shot a confused (or possibly horrified) look at his sister upon seeing Kuri-chan slice an onion. in a language Kuri-chan could understand. ―I know. orbiting each other as they each contributed to the preparation of the meal in their own particular way. Among the many things that Kuri-chan enjoyed about staying with Akiko‘s family when they visited Japan was the way they had prepared their meals. at least in the way that Kuri-chan typically thought of furniture. The dining room table and chairs were the only real furniture in the house. right next to the dining area. Akiko‘s mother. In the morning. and her brother and sister from all occupying the space together. Just let it go. only a stereo. at least. Kuri-chan wouldn‘t have liked the idea of his freshly-washed 57 . but rather because she was simply too polite to walk away. used the open space in the front room to fold and sort laundry while listening to the radio. on the other hand. he has no idea what he‘s doing. seemed pretty simple. okaasan. They had no television. Anywhere else. or should we intervene?‖ It was in those types of moments that Kuri-chan most suspected that Akiko simply tolerated him.‖ He‘d been slicing the vegetables for a while now and his technique had improved quite a bit. remaining with him not because she felt an affection for him. both of her parents. The front room had a small computer desk and chair in one corner and a piano in another corner. but was otherwise just lots of open space. Slicing vegetables. ―Should we stand idly by and watch this happen. He hated washing the rice because he could never tell when it was clean enough to start cooking. moving around in their own paths. as if to say. The look Akiko gave her brother said.
which remained open space most of the time. and go to sleep. and sleeping with her head resting on his shoulder on all the bus and train rides they‘d taken. The word ‗futon‘ initially made Kurichan think of the cheap couches in the States that easily converted into beds. From the moment they‘d landed at Narita. and the hardwood floors stayed very clean and maintained a polished appearance. everyone would pull their futon mattresses out from the closets and unroll them onto the tatami floors for sleeping. The rooms upstairs all had traditional tatami floors. After the first time they‘d had sex. and they had been sleeping with each other since the same month they started dating. but he quickly realized that. Before they went to sleep each night. the American futon was far different from the traditional Japanese futon. Akiko‘s brother had a small desk in his room. Kuri-chan couldn‘t help but wonder whether Akiko had let it happen simply because she didn‘t object. Kuri-chan couldn‘t figure out why they had more pillow talk in Japan—where they slept apart—than they did any other time back in the States. Akiko and her sister would put their feet under the table as they brushed their teeth at night. Akiko lay on the floor next to Kuri-chan‘s futon. asking him how he‘d enjoyed the day and telling him what was on the agenda for the following day. She smiled at him sleepily as she delayed the moment when she would get up. This felt like more affection than she‘d shown him in all the months they‘d been together. Walking through the front room in the mornings. and not 58 . like the front room downstairs did. close the sliding partition between the two bedrooms. the way he had in his mother‘s house when he was just a kid. And it wasn‘t just the pillow talk. wrapping her arm around his as they waited outside the terminal for a bus. the blankets wrapped tightly over their laps to keep the heat from escaping. Being home looked good on her. and in the middle of her sister‘s room was a kotatsu table—like a small coffee table set into the floor with an electric heater underneath and a blanket over the top. like so many other things. Akiko had been extraordinarily affectionate. But no one wore shoes in this house.clothing being stacked on the floor. And when it was time for bed. Kuri-chan resisted the urge to get a running start and then see how far his socks would let him slide.
and to think about the different implications and ramifications of some idea or theory they were introduced to. Her normal American self. But then in Japan. when they slept in different bedrooms. The slow pace at his public high school gave him time to daydream about the concepts they were introduced to. At times he nearly resented sentences and paragraphs for stealing his attention away from the letter. When he studied at the academy. that Corndog couldn‘t take the same leisure. and went to sleep. His Russian handwriting. By the time many of the other students were beginning to get a basic grasp on the idea. that he no longer had time to give the letters sufficient attention to retain that same visual aesthetic he once enjoyed so thoroughly. however. so when he went to bed and found he wasn‘t tired.because she was actually interested in sleeping with him. and themes. so many different ideas. they split off from the group. eating the meal they all had a hand in preparing. he was also forced to become so concerned with the sentence as a whole. Kuri-chan struggled a bit with jet lag. the family would sit together. Something about the resentment felt similar to the anger he experienced while he had studied at the academy. As he was required in his assignments to build a larger vocabulary and to give more attention to the constructions of various types of sentences. After sitting around the table with the family. she was her normal self again. By the time they were back in the States together. they covered so much material. Kuri-chan felt a sense of physical chemistry with Akiko he‘d never experienced back home. Sergei‘s handwriting went the same way it had in English. or even the paragraph. Kuri-chan found a singular pleasure in putting the pen to paper and drawing the symbol that corresponds to a sound. excusing themselves to go to bed. was a sloppy cursive script. One by one. crawled under the heavy blankets. Corndog was already bored with it and ready to move on to something new. he practiced his hiragana. A bit further into his study of Russian. Kuri-chan first made the connection that one of his favorite parts of learning Russian had been learning the Cyrillic alphabet only when he began to learn hiragana during that trip to Japan. drink ocha. in that it became increasingly difficult to read. 59 . more often than not. talk. As he had with the Cyrillic alphabet. They rolled out their futons. He was free to let his mind wander. and laugh. anyway. concepts. however.
‖ But from time to time.Kuri-chan continued to prepare a meal for himself and Akiko as she worked in the living room. however. In his English classes. He‘d gotten good practice when he and his buddies sat 60 . no amount of figuring would make it possible to arrive at the correct answer. and while he and Akiko looked for an apartment together. With English. Corndog had lived in his mother‘s house his entire childhood. but as he cooked dinner he couldn‘t stop thinking about something his mother asked when he‘d told her he was moving in with Akiko: ―Does she want you to?‖ At the time. when he was alone with Akiko in the apartment and felt like he was reverting back to Corndog. We wouldn‘t be talking about it if she didn‘t. ―Yes. Perhaps it was only Kuri-chan‘s apprehension about the impending conversation. all sorts of nonsense could be justified. right up until he left to see whether the academy could help him achieve his potential. He hadn‘t missed a beat when he told his mom. The academy billed itself as a ―pioneering education community.‖ If Corndog didn‘t choose the right formula or equation for a particular math or science problem. After having been one of the most talented math students at his home high school. as long as he could back up a claim with a convincing enough argument. he quickly found that so long as he could construct a reasonable argument about something. Kuri-chan had thought nothing of the question. and Corndog traced the earliest beginnings of his loss of interest in both math and science to the brief time he‘d spent there. of course she wants me to move in with her.‖ specializing in math and science education. His response to competition when he wasn‘t a clear frontrunner was to give up completely. it didn‘t seem to matter all that much whether it was ―right. Corndog found it incredibly discouraging to compete with some of the most talented students from all around the state. he wondered if maybe his mother was a little more perceptive than he‘d given her credit for.
and Corndog told her he was kind of surprised to find himself proud that his brother John had joined the Marine Corps. with how radical she came across in some of her letters. of course. As much as Corndog felt those arguments forced him to be precise with his language. like their family backgrounds and what their home high schools had been like.around getting high. but before Corndog worked up the nerve to talk about romantic matters. Jessi put her arm around Corndog‘s. and it only made things worse that Jessi wasn‘t a smoker. and pulled him close as they walked. because everyone was always eager to debate each other fervently about any statement made. because he would‘ve felt bad smoking around her. Her family seemed a little more establishment than Corndog might‘ve expected. by the line of trees just past the soccer field. he hadn‘t found them to be very stimulating on an intellectual level. The café was a small local franchise. As they neared the far side of campus. Surprised. her father a cop and her mother a stay-at-home mom and Sunday-school teacher. he had barely so much as kissed a girl. And. they weren‘t even remotely as gratifying as the letters he had exchanged with Jessi over the summer before going to the academy. Corndog was nervous. right down to which was better: Mountain Dew or Jolt. so no part of this endeavor came easily to him. Long after the waitress had stopped refilling their coffee mugs. Shortly after his first semester at the academy had begun. Jessi suggested it might be time to start walking back toward campus. Before Jessi. She came across as very non-judgmental and made him feel safe talking about it. He was a little uncomfortable. Over coffee. Jessi took Corndog up on his invitation to go out for coffee. at first. Jessi‘s parents were together. 61 . He took Jessi to a café he‘d discovered with his roommate when scouting for good off-campus locations to go when they were high and smoke cigarettes without getting caught. they talked about some of the things their letters over the summer hadn‘t covered. They talked about their siblings. with a full breakfast menu served all day and a variety of special ice cream desserts. telling Jessi about his dad‘s difficulties holding down a stable job due to his bouts of binge drinking. Corndog struggled to finish the sentence he‘d been in the middle of.
He wasted no time wrapping his arms around her as she‘d just done so she couldn‘t get away. he grabbed her as if to try to hold her back and pass her by.‖ With that. preventing him from getting away.‘ isn‘t it?‖ Jessi let go of him and slapped him on the shoulder.‖ he said. and he quickly stopped trying to break free. ―Okay.‖ she said. that‘s a no. good.‖ Corndog laughed. he let himself fall to the ground. I didn‘t mean that at all.‖ 62 . but I just wanted you to know up front that I‘m not going to be the ‗stoner‘ girlfriend.―You know. She wrapped both arms around him and held on. As he caught up to Jessi. we can lie—it doesn‘t matter! Let‘s just experience the grass together.‖ she said.‖ she said. ―Do you want to see if we can find a good spot under these trees?‖ How could Corndog argue with that? ―Bet I can find one before you!‖ She said. Corndog gave chase. ―Let‘s lay down. slowing her walking pace. ―Okay. letting go of his arm and running toward the trees. but she kept laughing and held on. people never take the time to just lay in the grass. She lay on top of him. his sense of worry about Jessi‘s sudden seriousness being overpowered slightly by the splendor of having her so close to him. but he caught her. ―If by ‗experience the grass‘ you mean smoke weed. He could feel her breath on his lips. ―No.‖ he said. ―But it‘s supposed to be ‗lie. buddy boy!‖ She started to run. and looked in his eyes.‖ Jessi said. still laughing. her voice soft. that does it! You just missed your chance. pulling Jessi down with him so that he broke her fall. and she laughed as she scrambled to stay ahead of him. ―I won‘t tell you how to live your life. face to face. ―Okay. ―Oh. ―We can lay.
she spent many of her weekends at home. and he let her words settle in for a moment. Jessi had already been warning Corndog that if he didn‘t try harder. it did little more than speed along the already inevitable reality that Corndog was not going to successfully finish out the year at the academy. as if the mere sight of him called to mind the couple and an instinctive curiosity about the whereabouts of his missing half. This left Corndog with lots of time for getting high with his roommate and a few of the other students who were having a hard time living up to their potential. Then. Corndog was too preoccupied with his disdain for society and his infatuation with Jessi to accomplish much in the way of schoolwork. From that first coffee date forward. she said that she didn‘t want to deal with it. The days and nights with Jessi passed quickly. Jessi was still able to focus on completing her school work. he could easily not be invited back for his junior year. and the only thing that made it feel like a long time was that he knew what came next. The couple exchanged letters with each other even more frequently than they had over the summer. When she came back to campus that Wednesday evening and he told her what had happened. As a senior. not knowing whether seconds had passed or hours. Jessi spent Wednesdays off campus doing research for an independent study project. Looking into her eyes that way. Even with all their discussion of how harmful civilization was to the human spirit. and because her family didn‘t live far from campus. and Jessi‘s frequent weekend trips home with family—was a time for writing letters to each other. 63 . Corndog had spent so much of his time with Jessi— oftentimes on the way to or from their patch of grass under the trees. he did it. to touch his lips to hers. When he and his roommate were caught getting high in their dorm bathroom on a Wednesday afternoon.She continued to stare into his eyes. on the far side of the soccer field—that he began noticing that students he didn‘t know gave him funny looks when he wasn‘t with her. Any circumstance that forced their separation—class. in spite of the fact that they spent most of their free hours together in person on any given day. he knew he was experiencing the sort of thing that might be described in prose as losing track of time. But he knew exactly how much time was passing. 10 o‘clock dorm curfew. and he was terrified to bring his face those few inches forward.
noticing that the way she delivered her words seemed marked not by sadness. so by the time they reached their spot. and admired the way loose strands of the hair that had slipped out from behind her ear coiled along the soft skin of her cheek. Corndog looked away. ―Probably more than anyone else we know. as she sometimes did when they first came out. continued to amplify his anxiety as the moments passed. Corndog and Jessi walked to their usual spot on the other side of the soccer field. well. but it could have just been his reaction to the thought of struggling through another two and a half years at the academy. and folded her hands under her chin staring back in the direction of campus.and spent the rest of the evening in her own dorm. The next night. What else kept him there? 64 . Her silence. resting her head on her folded hands. and Corndog complained to his roommate about Jessi abandoning him when he needed her the most. His roommate just nodded. If it was this difficult to muster any interest in his classes now. ―You know. He and his roommate sat in the lobby of their dorm watching sci-fi TV with their neighbors. with Jessi at the academy. It seemed like the right thing to say. Jessi didn‘t speak when Corndog met her in front of her dorm and started their walk to the line of trees. The weariness seemed contagious. But why can‘t you just. Jessi lay down on her stomach. but by tiredness. so uncharacteristic. Finally. I think I get all the reasons you would not want to participate in this corrupt system. noting that by the time he returned from his suspension they might need to add a second blanket to insulate them from the ground. when she was at college somewhere else. put up with it? At least until we get out of here and can move on with our lives?‖ Corndog watched her face as she spoke. Corndog lay down next to her. he could only imagine how much more difficult it would be over the next two years. on his side. which was getting colder each night. not looking away from the TV. he was starting to feel a bit anxious.‖ she began. staring off at the campus buildings as Jessi had when they first lay down. she turned to look at him. He laid the blanket out on the ground. before his mom picked him up to come home and serve out his one-week suspension. She looked sad.
He continued to stare at the campus. And next year you‘ll be gone. careful not to show too much affection with the risk of being written up by the on-duty resident counselors. the only reason I‘m still at this academy is because I want to be with you. when he returned to campus after his suspension. does a person have to go to college to be a writer? Not that I‘m saying I won‘t go to college. They had only exchanged three single-page letters over the two-week winter break. ―I mean. they were forced to do like other couples.―It‘s fun to daydream about running away.‖ Jessi reached over and put her hand on the back of Corndog‘s neck and squeezed. ―but the reality is that we‘re going to have to play by the rules for a little while if we really want a chance to change anything. and those letters were limited mostly to details about family holiday celebrations. okay?‖ In spite of their conversation. to play by ―their‖ rules long enough to eventually get a chance to fight the system from the inside. You need to study writing.‖ she went on. By the time the second semester started. the thought of two more years at the academy without her seemed intolerable. and sit next to each other in the TV chairs in the dorm lobby watching bad sitcoms. He didn‘t bother to argue with her theory. When they came back to school in early January. ―You can‘t just write me letters. and then I can figure out what‘s next. 65 . you know. so they couldn‘t visit their spot on the far side of the soccer field. Jessi. and how much they missed each other. so you can go out there and reach other people. too. but instead just continued to get high and skip class. Corndog continued to skip classes and miss assignments. Any time he wasn‘t with Jessi. Jessi tried harder each week to convince him that he should stick it out. ―Honestly. it was cold and there was snow on the ground.‖ He took her hand that she‘d placed on his neck and held it to his cheek. But still. he was getting high with his roommate or other friends. Instead.‖ Corndog turned back to her. Jessi had stopped trying to convince him. ―Do you really think so?‖ he asked her. momentarily envisioning the possibility of getting high less and leaning into his education. but I guess I just don‘t like the idea of forcing myself to do this—this academy thing—just because it‘s going to get me from where I am right now to somewhere else. I just want to do my best to get through the end of this year.
Corndog‘s father had suggested that next time he come home maybe he could come live with him. His father had meant for the summer. though it felt slightly different from the feeling he got when he returned home. was that his time there had been his only real firsthand exposure to anything beyond small town life. One of the only regrets he expected to have about leaving the academy. It pained him to cut that short. Each time he‘d returned home to visit from the academy. he felt a nebulous. with each mile he drew closer to campus. but once Corndog realized he was coming home sooner. The dean of students informed Corndog that he had a choice: he could either withdraw from the academy on his own. when he‘d gone back to the academy after his break was over.It only took until the third Wednesday of the new semester until Corndog and his roommate were in trouble again. 66 . They were caught before they even had a chance to get high because Corndog‘s roommate dropped his rolling papers in the dorm lobby just as one of the dorm counselors was walking past. with the exception of leaving Jessi behind and having no sense of certainty about their future together. Similarly. At one point he‘d wondered if maybe the feeling just came with the drive itself. or he could sit through a formal disciplinary hearing with the school administration to determine whether he would be allowed to remain a student. it would be nice to be go back to having his dad buy his cigarettes again. and what the probationary terms would be if he was. Corndog didn‘t have much trouble deciding whether to fight for an opportunity to remain a student at a school that made learning—something he normally enjoyed—feel like such a steep climb. growing sense of anxiety that always took at least a few days to wear off. he called and made plans to move in with his dad. The last time they‘d spoken. the unspecified sense of trepidation and hesitation returned. After the months of being forced to steal cigarettes at the grocery store because it was so hard to find a buyer. that something about being transported from one place to another—from his small rural hometown to a progressive academic campus in an average-sized suburban city—brought about some type of psychic movement in him that he didn‘t quite understand or know how to process.
He just knew that he‘d argued fervently that there was no way they could know what they were missing. Still. sitting with the open encyclopedia. during the course of the discussion. or at least the guys Corndog spent most of his time with didn‘t seem to have much interest in anything beyond the city limits. but he started to feel bad for devoting all the time he wasn‘t with her to getting high or acquiring cigarettes with his roommate when there had been so much else he could‘ve been doing. He didn‘t regret any of the time he‘d spent with Jessi. This type of fascination with the larger world outside wasn‘t common in his hometown. only to become so intrigued by other articles that he found himself. John happened to be back on his ten-day leave after Marine Corps boot camp when Corndog decided to leave the academy. a deep-seated and ineffable knowledge that soon the tether would retract and bring him back within the city limits. he gave Corndog fair warning that before taking him to their dad‘s house. There were also times when he opened an encyclopedia to look something up. And then there he was. while high on mushrooms. Maybe the anxiety that had plagued him each time he went back to the academy after a break might have been the prescient sense of approaching the far end of the elastic tether his hometown had him on. he was supposed to take him home to see their mom first. when John came to pick him up on campus. holding him in. During his final ride home from the academy. Corndog remembered that he‘d felt strongly. about whether their hometown was. Corndog couldn‘t stop thinking that he‘d missed his opportunity while he was at the academy to find out what he‘d been missing in his hometown. 67 . tearing through all sorts of books that exposed him to narrative representations of countless different cultures. hours later. When the van crossed into the city limits of his small hometown once again. Corndog wondered if the unease he felt each time he was coming and going was the constraint of those limits. again.Corndog had been an avid reader as a child. real and imagined. and yet he couldn‘t recall what the final analysis had been. which meant Corndog didn‘t have to make the drive home with his mom. in fact. that the outcome of that debate would have lasting meaning for him and his group of friends. with his brother John driving and all his belongings in the back seat of the van. He and his friends had actually debated extensively one night. boring. unsure of what he first meant to look up. anyway.
Corndog found his mother sitting at her desk. and he let his gaze come to rest on the dusty heat vent on the floor beside the desk. She stared at the check register long enough that it became clear she was no longer paying bills or balancing her checkbook. he knew it had probably been a challenge to scrape together the payments she‘d already made. He felt his shoulders drop. finally turning to face him. He knew the school charged tuition on a sliding scale in cases of need. ―What do you have to say for yourself?‖ Any other time. ―So. He started to feel as though every particle of cigarette smoke that had been come to rest in his clothing from the last cigarette on the ride home was now dislodging itself to float over into her range of smell. but he didn‘t say anything to announce himself. His mom probably wouldn‘t get any type of refund for the year because he‘d attended well into the second semester. Corndog experienced another wave of guilt. He hadn‘t told her about that. but not now. checkbook and bills fanned out in front of her. He knew she saw him in her peripheral vision. As she finished her calculation and wrote a figure into the balance column on her check register. like his. however much they were. Corndog remained silent. He wondered if his eyes retained any of their redness from the morning‘s farewell joint. Corndog might have grinned at her tendency to sound clichéd. and they allowed for installment payments over the course of the school year. That was when Corndog noticed how red his mother‘s eyes were. Corndog walked up beside his mother‘s desk as she typed in numbers on her calculator.‖ she said. Maybe she hadn‘t paid for the whole year yet. Still. He doubted his father had been paying child support. and at least she‘d have a few payments left she wouldn‘t have to make. He felt a pang of guilt as he thought about how expensive the academy‘s annual tuition must have been. 68 . but instead was collecting her thoughts. recalling the $150 graphing calculator that was stolen when he left his backpack in the dorm lounge unattended all night while he and his friends were out getting high.
―I guess the best I can hope for is that maybe living over there will give you a feel for what your life will be like if you keep this up. Corndog had spent many weekends there as a young child during the odd six. The house had previously belonged to Corndog‘s grandfather. He had smoked pot every day his freshman year. as it referred to Corndog‘s uncle‘s house. a place sure to help him fail. I‘ve tried letting you figure it out on your own. in school and out. His grandfather‘s death was one of the reasons he advocated so strongly for marijuana over alcohol. they would eat wonderful home-cooked 69 . And now. with college-like class schedules and independent study projects. ―I don‘t like to get in between you and your father. they had made it look like he couldn‘t handle smoking pot and going to school at the same time.‖ She said the ―over there‖ part with a special note of scorn. but you need to know that I don‘t approve of you going to live with him.‖ She looked away.―I guess I just don‘t know how to handle you. Corndog felt his sense of guilt turn a sharp corner to take the shape of resentment. because he hadn‘t played into their offbeat educational approach.‖ With her pronouncement of that loathed word. where his dad had been renting a room for the past couple years. the house Corndog‘s father lived in had seemed symbolic of a certain kind of hopelessness. all of them alcoholics with various levels of ability to function normally with regard to holding down jobs and paying bills. But even before his grandfather‘s death. If his dad happened to be sober during the weekend he and John stayed over. but because he did so well he was shipped off to some newagey school for smart kids. But you just won‘t stop pissing away your potential. He could have easily stayed in his hometown and skated through the rest of high school that way. ―I‘ve tried severe punishments.or nine-month periods his dad moved back there after failing to make rent during one of his alcoholic binges. and finished the year with straight As and awards for regional and state math competitions. but his grandfather had died of liver failure just before Corndog started high school.‖ she said. usually two or three adult men living with their father and brothers. even if he did still lower himself to drinking liquor when left with no other substances to ingest.
just as long as they didn‘t forget to get a bottle of grapefruit juice to cut the vodka with. The household had an undeniable appeal in its lack of judgment. ―But try to remember while you‘re living there that if anything‘s gonna change. he went into one of the boxes.‖ Once John had finished helping carry everything into their father‘s house from the van. In recent years. both things he couldn‘t do at his mother‘s house.‖ his mother added. He knew she wanted her talk of his living over there to be sobering. green beans. More often. All he could think of was the steady supply of cigarettes and the freedom to smoke as he pleased. The shoebox he took out was filled with a collection of letters.meals—Corndog‘s favorite was chicken-fried steak. ―I know you‘re going to do what you want. and rather than trying to unpack everything. spending the weekend at that house had meant playing Super Mario Brothers with John and possibly getting twenty bucks to go pick out whatever they wanted at the convenience store. He tried to maintain the somber look on his face. something will have to change. as if to suggest that he was on track to end up just like his father and uncles. and eventually his grandfather. he wished Corndog good luck and left to go back to their mom‘s house. Corndog went up to his new bedroom alone and looked at the boxes and luggage. It was never a simple task. Corndog‘s visits to his dad‘s place meant smoking cigarettes freely and staying up all night watching cable television. There were also a few other items in the box. meant for 70 . all from Jessi. deciding how one‘s own personal space should be organized. but couldn‘t stop imagining the possibilities. like a ―Gonzo‖ PEZ dispenser she‘d picked up for him when she went home one weekend. He quickly found himself overwhelmed by the prospect of having to decide how he would arrange his room. He soon gave in to his sense of despair. took out a smaller box he found inside. and mashed potatoes— and play marathon games of Monopoly or Yahtzee. but he couldn‘t help but imagine the sense of freedom he would have if he lived there. and sat down in the middle of the unmade bed. and a polished rock with an indentation.
Jessi looked into Corndog‘s eyes. walking to the café arm in arm and then sitting together on the same side of the booth as they held each other in silence. wrapped in each other‘s arms on that thin cotton blanket spread out under their tree behind the soccer field. a plain white legal envelope with a single sheet of college-ruled loose leaf paper inside.‖ she wrote. Jessi had gone home more often than Corndog. When the rubber band could no longer hold the letters. She had skipped all her classes that day. As her words recaptured some thought they‘d shared with one another.rubbing to release nervous energy when one is stressed or worried. When he read about their mutual hopes of living simply on the land. Corndog had tried keeping the letters Jessi gave him in chronological order. Corndog reached into the box and pulled out the most recent envelope. For a while. The collection had gone from a small paperclip to a larger paperclip. and when they walked back to campus she clutched his right arm tightly to her as they walked. He unfolded the sheet and read the words once again. usually the longer ones. They sat long enough that the manager came and politely explained that they would need to order something besides coffee if they wanted to stay any longer. he‘d recalled their conversations. She‘d given him the letter the night before. She handed him the envelope. her head rested on his shoulder. As they stood in front of his dorm before curfew. and usually some small gift. and rolling papers. which he would occasionally take out and re-read. and carefully. just before his final curfew call. Neither shed a tear. matches. away from the civilized world. ―Good bye. he recalled the scent of her hair and the feel of her breath on his neck. They had spent the day together. he‘d emptied out the shoebox that had been his hiding place for lighters. and then to a rubber band. They walked past the row of trees. a trinket or souvenir. Corndog had favorites among the letters. folded neatly in thirds. and each time she brought him back at least one letter— sometimes two. and then she turned and walked back to her own dorm alone. 71 . but eventually that became too difficult. but didn‘t stop this time. slowly.
he didn‘t want to risk three days of homework and possible quizzes or tests he couldn‘t make up. Why not try and see if he could get a thirty-day keytag for himself? If he could get a little bit of clean time and stop letting drugs play such a big part all his decisions. Now he‘d written at least a dozen short stories over the course of his undergraduate career. but with a semester of straight Cs from his time at the academy. He might have just opted to take the time off school to stay home. smoke cigarettes. And he‘d hardly written a thing. Even after he‘d gotten all the signatures he need on his attendance sheet. as his father had been attending twelve-step meetings and not drinking for almost six months at the time. but they just didn‘t get high anymore. He couldn‘t get why he felt like he had far less to say as a writer after nearly four years of college writing classes than he‘d thought he had in high school. he‘d felt absolutely certain that he had something important to say to the world. Especially when he‘d been with Jessi. and he joined them at a greasy diner after one of the meetings. and another guy had a keytag for six months. and read. drank coffee. Kuri-chan paid limited attention to his cooking as he alternated between thoughts of his conversation with Akiko and the idea of being a writer. even with similar tastes.Living with his father as he finished high school actually turned out to be a positive influence. They smoked cigarettes. A guy and a girl not much older than Corndog each had keytags for ninety days clean. Corndog kept going to meetings. outside of the letters he wrote for Jessi. Corndog saw a few interesting people close to his age at the first few meetings he went to. maybe he would find a girl he liked and have a shot at something that could last. It wasn‘t long after moving in with his dad that Corndog was told he could avoid a three-day suspension if he went to some twelve-step meetings. and each time he started a new 72 . and talked music just like his stoner friends.
the less he was concerned with the appearance of the finished product as he devoted increasing attention to the individual ingredients along the way. if not conflicting advice from his instructors like ―write what you know.‖ and ―the text we must be interested in writing is the text we don‘t yet know how to write. waiting for some interesting phrase or scenario to strike him. The way the stories took shape seemed baffling and mysterious. but took an inordinate amount of time to prepare. too. and each successive meal actually looked a little more like it had been prepared by someone who knew what he was doing. which he then took to class to see how other students reacted. so he could begin writing.one he found that the messages he wanted to communicate never ended up being what the story was about. As a result. and he was met with confusing. he learned to prepare meals much more quickly. which typically preoccupied him so much that he became somewhat incapable of adequately handling the individual steps along the way. Kuri-chan‘s approach to cooking was a bit unorthodox. And what came out in the end were stories. like slicing an onion. he just sat in front of a blank screen. he tried very hard to keep his revisions to a minimum. He didn‘t want to inadvertently break something and ruin the story. his meals usually ended up looking more or less okay (certainly not the idealized versions he‘d been shooting for). the more unintelligible it became. whether in Russian or English. His process of learning to cook had gone in the opposite direction from his study of Russian. His instinctual approach to the task of trying to cook a particular meal involved focusing primarily on what the end product should look like. No matter what his instructors and the other students suggested. and yet the more quickly he wrote by hand to capture a thought or idea. in which the individual letters and words he wrote became more inscrutable as the sentences he was capable of formulating grew longer. As he improved his skills with the component ingredients. 73 .‖ So each time he wrote. and then he did his best to reserve judgment and not to force things. The more experience he gained as a cook. His holistic approach to cooking yielded meals that consisted of individual bites he savored so much more.
and kanji the collection of symbols borrowed from Chinese that stand for whole words. followed by a couple other words. filling up blank pages in a notebook with line after line of ―ah – ih – uh – eh – oh. the idea of sloppy handwriting was still a long way off for Kuri-chan. which just meant that there were two chickens in the garden. Just discovering what the base sounds for the language are had been fascinating for Kurichan. Maybe there were just too many nuances and subtleties in the way emotion affected English speech that Akiko didn‘t pick up on. As he thought about hearing those foreign sounds differently. she‘d explained the three main sets of Japanese characters to Kurichan: hiragana. mumbling the sounds to himself as he went along.‖ Not knowing Japanese. for a brief time he found pleasure in his ability to write some of the Japanese words he‘d heard a lot.‖ and so on. Hiragana is a phonetic alphabet for native words. Kuri-chan wondered if his conversation with Akiko might be easier if he could speak Japanese. The workbook began with the fortysix characters in the hiragana set. which is to say that he knew it was interesting from an intellectual 74 . and vice versa. For a few weeks following his visit to Japan. katakana. like なに (nani-what) and さむい (samui-cold). katakana the phonetic alphabet for foreign words.‖ ―ka – ki – ku – ke – ko.With Japanese. about chickens in the garden in front of the house and behind the house. Just as he‘d once been excited to learn how to write down familiar Russian words like привет (privyet-hello) and спасибо (spasiba-thanks). he had practiced hiragana in a workbook Akiko had given him to occupy his time during their flights over the Pacific. but that one had been far too complicated for Kuri-chan to try to memorize. Even if he had memorized it. it sounded to him like Akiko had simply repeated the syllables ―ni wa‖ three times. and so Kuri-chan had made his best effort to memorize the phonetic meanings as he practiced drawing each character. She then rattled off an even longer one. She had explained to him that it was a Japanese tongue twister. as it changed the way he thought about the different sounds he heard during his visit with Akiko‘s family. He wondered how many sounds he‘d missed completely because his untrained ears hadn‘t been able to distinguish them. and kanji. Kuri-chan recalled a Japanese phrase she‘d told him when he‘d been practicing hiragana: ―Niwa ni wa niwatori ga iru. When she‘d given him the workbook. he still would have understood only as well as the shorter one.
he still wouldn‘t be able to make heads or tails of a Japanese newspaper. Kanji was nearly enough to put Kurichan off the idea of trying to learn Japanese at all. In Japanese. it was pronounced differently when used in the construction ―三人‖—san nin or さんいん—three people. which wouldn‘t have been nearly as cute as the way Akiko said ―dealer shop‖ when she talked about the car dealership where she took her car for oil changes. perfectly capable of writing out all of his or her thoughts using hiragana and katakana. which 75 . ―人. But he knew that he had to finish his final semester in Russian and put that behind him forever before he could. Kuri-chan had bugged Akiko during their visit about one of the characters he saw on lots of signs. But then. or hito. the sentence would be perfectly clear and understandable. he speculated. Newspapers were written in kanji.standpoint. Kanji seemed far too complex. that would be ひと. The ni wa tongue twister. Maybe emotions could be like that. Kuri-chan knew he would be the type of person to say something stupid like ―san hito‖ for three people. But when written in kanji. swear off another language entirely. not just because there were so many symbols. Kuri-chan called Akiko into the kitchen when the ricemaker sounded its alarm so she could begin preparing the plates. because it would just be the repeating syllables with no clear indications of where one word ended and the next began. the ability to record the sounds of Japanese in writing felt like a big deal to Kuri-chan. as Akiko had explained. could possibly even be difficult for a native speaker to read in hiragana. in good conscience. When he practiced hiragana.‖ which Akiko told him was the kanji for person. too. Written in hiragana. Akiko had explained. but because the symbols didn‘t even retain the same pronunciations from one sentence to the next. but that still didn‘t mean he could hear the meaningful distinctions in the way the sentence was vocalized. a person could be a fluent speaker of the language. and still be considered illiterate if unable to decipher the thousands of symbols that made up the complicated system of Japanese kanji. That had only been until Akiko explained to him that even with a perfect grasp of both hiragana and katakana. That had been enough to dash Kuri-chan‘s naïve hopes that perhaps learning hiragana would be sufficient to get by if he ever wanted to spend more time in Japan. He had already finished sautéing the vegetables.
followed by both middle names: ―Christopher William Francis! Come get your cereal bowl and take it to the sink!‖ He wasn‘t sure why his parents had insisted on two middle names. and the chicken breast in the oven was nearly done. but not quite. Kurichan had wondered. ―But they‘re playing highlights from last week. One of the staple meals in his repertoire.‖ She picked up the chopsticks and water glasses Christopher had set on the counter. when he first learned that she didn‘t have a middle name. he hadn‘t even bothered walking through the produce section when he‘d gone grocery shopping. Before moving in with Akiko. invoking her best rendition of Adriana from The Sopranos as she walked into the kitchen. as a matter of fact. Akiko. shouting in her thick Jersey accent at her fiancé. had no middle names. most of Kuri-chan‘s meals on the rare occasions that he ate at home consisted of highly-processed goods requiring little prep work.were holding on low heat on the back burner. maybe her lack of middle name was as uncommon in Japan as two middle names was here in the States. He now had a rather convenient arrangement with Akiko: she selected the ingredients and he assembled the meals. But then. ―Chris-tuh-fah!‖ Akiko exclaimed. It was almost.‖ Akiko said. Before moving in with Akiko. did it?‖ ―No. 76 . his problem was primarily his distinct inability to select ingredients. grabbed a couple paper towels. Akiko loved to tease Kuri-chan. or to vegetables. so we have to hurry. on the other hand. Akiko and Kuri-chan watched The Sopranos every week. by mimicking the Jersey accent when she was feeling energetic. and his mother would invoke his full name. maybe they just hadn‘t been able to agree on one. It wasn‘t that he had an aversion to cooking.‖ Christopher responded. Christopher. whose real name was Christopher. walking into the kitchen. ―Comin‘ right up. and Akiko giggled every time Adriana was on the screen. ―You wanna come get the chopsticks and water? The show didn‘t start yet. and headed back to the living room. what Japanese mothers shouted to indicate how much trouble their children were in. had been macaroni and cheese with hot dogs. reminiscent of those rare times when Christopher had gotten in trouble as a child.
‖ No words were necessary. It was comfortable. ―that‘s just lazy. He was proud of this little gem he‘d taken from his brief experience as a waiter.‖ he said with a sigh. ―That‘s not called being efficient. Just before plunging their chopsticks into the warm rice. ―So Akiko. and it was wordless.‖ Christopher set the plates on the coffee table and took his seat on the floor next to Akiko. ―Thanks for cooking!‖ The two ate in silence as they watched TV. the traditional Japanese saying that precedes a meal. Akiko badgered him to play rummy after dinner. not sure how he wanted to bring the topic up. Their time together as a couple now largely consisted of evenings much like this—doing homework together in silence.‖ she said. or Christopher reading while Akiko solved Sudoku puzzles. Once the episode ended. Maybe it would make the conversation easier. He rarely wanted to. Christopher carried the meal into the living room. it seemed like the perfect example of something he‘d once heard in a meeting: ―intimacy is shared experience. Akiko set her empty plate on his and said ―gochiso-sama deshita”—it was a feast—as she took the dishes to the kitchen. Or maybe it could make up for not moving his arm away from the girl in class that afternoon. 77 . ―Yay! I‘ll get the cards. but whenever he did it Akiko told him he should be more careful. ―Can we talk about something?‖ ―Okay. ―Sure. scurrying off to the other room as Kuri-chan cleared some space on the coffee table. For Christopher.‖ she said.‖ Kuri-chan said when she walked back into the room. he knew Akiko loved playing cards. watching TV or a movie. but he sometimes gave in and agreed to play.After dishing up the food. Either way. they both said itadakimasu.‖ she‘d say. Akiko followed that with. balancing two plates in one hand and two bowls of rice in the other. he thought. I‘m game. ―Do you want to play cards?‖ At least a few times a month.
She sat back down immediately and hid her face in her hands. ―Shut up!‖ Akiko shouted. or that she‘d had a better day at work. he hadn‘t been sure how he would know when to say ―I love you. With Akiko. Her labmate‘s boyfriend was a bit too enthusiastic as he raked the chips. He rubbed her back gently. he‘d felt comfortable telling Jessi he loved her just a few weeks into the semester they spent together because they‘d expressed so many of their thoughts and ideas on paper in a short period of time. was after a particularly difficult evening of poker with friends at her labmate‘s house. kissed her on the neck just above her shoulder.‖ 78 . Sergei had never said ―I love you‖ to Jess. when they‘d been dating for almost six months. and then she spent the entire evening in a cold seat at the poker table. and Kuri-chan exchanged awkward glances with the labmate and her boyfriend.The first time Kuri-chan had told Akiko he loved her. and then he made a flush on the river card to beat Akiko‘s straight—a bad beat by anyone‘s standards. when it would be appropriate to say that to her. her face slowly twisting from shocked disbelief into a look of pained disappointment and frustration. and whispered in her ear. He just wished she wasn‘t hurting.‖ Akiko had already complained to Kuri-chan on their way to the poker game about her stressful day of arguing with her lab manager about experiment protocols. which finally pushed her over the edge. He put a hand on Akiko‘s shoulder as the others slowly started to gather their belongings. wishing she could‘ve won that hand. When she flopped a high straight in the final hand of the night. He leaned in close. In high school. She faced away from him as they lay in bed. Akiko stared at the river card that completed her opponent‘s flush. Akiko pushed all her chips to the middle. absent the charged intellectual connections and the intense physical chemistry. He‘d been wondering. Akiko hadn‘t said anything as they rode home together that night. probably since the first time they‘d had sex. especially over an accumulation of such trivial things. on the other hand. Her labmate‘s boyfriend called her bet. ―I love you. standing up to throw her cards across the table at him as tears dripped down her cheeks. or any hand. as there had been so little time between their first sexual encounter and the moment he began to lose interest in her personality. certain that her luck had finally changed.
―They said they liked my résumé.‖ he said. She dealt out seven cards each to herself and Kuri-chan. put it with the rest of the cards he had. ―Now they want to fly me out for a formal interview. ―I mean. I just thought maybe we should talk about what we would do. but maybe you forgot. you know. but her focus seemed to stay with her cards. trying to read her reaction.‖ he said. and sometimes do workshops in places where there are lots of addicts to help train volunteers for community outreach type stuff. you know?‖ He drew another card from the deck. I got a letter back from them.‖ He watched Akiko‘s face. and tried to decide what he should discard. ―Well.‖ she said. She discarded a seven of hearts.‖ ―Okay. but go ahead with your story.‖ Still he could read nothing on her face. last month I sent them my résumé and a letter of interest. He got rid of the nine of clubs.‖ she answered. putting it face up on the discard pile. if I got a job out of state like that. I just thought maybe we should talk about it. well.‖ he said. it‘s on the west coast. ―Well. She picked up his discarded nine and laid down a set of nines on her side of the table. organizing the cards in his hand. ―It‘s your turn. 79 . ―I told you about it. He took a card from the top of the pile.‖ she said. You remember?‖ ―No. and we had a good talk on the phone this morning. holding her cards close. as she shuffled the cards. They publish materials for recovering addicts. I sent this nonprofit company my résumé about a month and a half ago. Well what do you want to talk about it?‖ He smiled at her awkward syntax. They are a nonprofit.‖ ―That‘s good. and I don‘t think they have any options where I could work from here. No help.‖ ―Okay. and they wanted to do a phone interview. ―Remember that letter I sent to the nonprofit place in San Francisco?‖ ―No. After holding it in his hand for a bit.‖ he started again. after all. which we did this morning.―So. ―So. as a couple. ―Well.
―You don‘t have to be ready to move just for an interview. he discarded the same card he had drawn from the pile. and it‘s good for your career. you got me. that makes sense.‖ she said in a mildly plaintive tone.‖ he said. ―Best two out of three?‖ ―I kinda want some dessert. ―Yes!‖ She played the card she drew—the nine of diamonds—with the set of nines on her side of the table. you know. or perhaps without even recognizing the emotional component. searching for any sign as to how he should take the matter-of-fact tone of her responses.‖ He pondered the cards in the discard pile for a moment and tried to see if any could be used with his hand.‖ he said weakly. you know. How would you feel about it?‖ ―Well.‖ he joked. his score could only be negative. ―But what would your thoughts be? I mean.‖ she said. With no sets on the table. not paying any attention to what it was. She picked up the card he discarded and laid down another set. ―But maybe we should go ahead and count up our scores.‖ He drew a card from the deck. ―Do you wanna go by the café for some tea?‖ 80 .‖ ―Yeah. Don‘t you think so?‖ ―Yeah. and discarded her last card.but not thinking about it very critically. Her enthusiasm with a win always made him smile. offering only a rational response without letting on to the emotional attitude behind it. ―I win!‖ ―Yep. then that would be something you should do. I think you should go with what‘s best for your future. you know? If they offer you a job that pays you enough.‖ he said. Or maybe it meant she would be happy for him to leave? She drew another card. if they offered me a job. It could simply be her cultural disposition. ―And I guess maybe that takes some pressure off. too. ―It‘s just an interview. He studied Akiko‘s face. ―I guess that makes sense. just in case. He discarded another card. and with no cards in her hand. Akiko‘s score could only be positive.
Kuri-chan let Akiko ride ahead of him. maintaining her steady pace. Anytime he‘d gone someplace with Jess. mostly because he couldn‘t count on her to keep up if he went first.‖ he answered. ―Sounds like a good idea. so I can schedule an interview. He and Jessi had walked everywhere. especially when he drove: ―if you want to get there faster.―Sure.‖ The two put on jackets before going down to the front of the building and getting on their bikes. ―So about that job. She told him many times.‖ Akiko answered. Sure. leave earlier. but did they have to ride so slowly? He sped up a bit to ride alongside Akiko. ―I think I‘ll go ahead and call them tomorrow. It nearly seemed like a different path altogether when he rode at her leisurely pace. He gathered up the cards and gave the deck a single shuffle.‖ Sergei watched Akiko with as much patience as he could muster as they gradually made their way from the apartment to the café. it was in her car with her driving.‖ ―Okay. ―We can play two and three over there. I‘m not gonna let this defeat go unanswered. She‘d been willing to adapt her route from the apartment to the coffee shop on Kuri-chan‘s suggestion—―you can get there from here much faster this way‖—but hadn‘t found a way to get her to reconsider the casual pace with which she rode.‖ 81 .‖ he said. and it occurred to him somewhere along the way that he‘d never gone anywhere with Jess or Jessi on bicycles. riding a bicycle was his favorite of the three.
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