“What are you doing for the break?” asked The Traveler.
We sat in the Gulbenkian on a Friday afternoon. Outside, the cold, relentless rain of an English winter was beating at the windows and threatening to shatter them. Puddles formed on the paths. Deep puddles, where small fish could have lived comfortably.
It was close to the end of term, and, while the Gulbenkian in the early afternoon was never a quiet place, it had never possessed this air of urgency before. About eighty percent of the people were undergrads, and if you looked them in the eyes (never recommended, because if you did that, then you ran the risk of joining them in binge drinking), you saw that they were on edge. They wanted out more than anything else, and their already short attention spans were stretched thin by promises of going home and... I don’t know, doing whatever English students do on break. Sprinkled through the café, you could see the odd lecturer or postgrad with confused looks on their faces. The expressions read: “What, these kids want to get out of academia? Don’t they realize that it’s safe here?”
“Hey,” said The Traveler, snapping his fingers. “Snap out of it.”
I shook my head and took my eyes off of the people struggling to walk outside.
The Traveler was still wearing his windbreaker-type coat. He had on a Red Sox baseball cap. We were sitting here waiting for The Student, who, from time to time, called us, pleading to meet up for some coffee after his Post-Industrial Literature seminar. “Oh,” I said. “I dunno. Sit around here?”
“For a month? You’ll go mad.”
“Well fine, what are you doing?”
“I’m going to Paris.”
“Can I go?”
“No,” he said. He drank from his bottle of orange juice.
“If you go, The Drunkard goes. Parisian police don’t take shit, and now they have assault rifles.” He shook his head. “Nope, I’m not dealing with having him around this time.”
I leaned back in my chair. “You’re betraying me,” I said.
“All for one and one for all!”
The Traveler hung his head, took off his ballcap, and laid it on the table. “We never said anything like that.”
“Oh. Well, come on, man. What am I supposed to do with my time?”
The Traveler shrugged. “You’re in that play, right?”
“I haven’t heard back about casting. I’m in it insofar as I’ve auditioned, and thus I am associated with the play.”
“You’ll get it. You’re Jewish.”
“That has nothing to do with it.”
The Traveler leaned forward. “Zero Mostel, Jewish.” He held up a finger. “The guy who replaced him, Jewish.” He held up another finger. “Chaim Topol, Über-Jewish.”
“Alfred Molina,” I said, holding up a finger, “not Jewish.”
“Who counts him?”
“Why shouldn’t you? He’s in the revival.”
“But what, he’s not Jewish? That’s reverse racism, my friend.”
“My point is, you idiot, no one’s going to associate him with the role.”
“Pah!” I said.
“Pah!” responded The Traveler.
The door at the rear of the cafe opened and a solitary figure, bent, dripping, and looking like a wet cat, walked in. He removed a few layers of covering from his head, and it turned out to be The Student. I held up my hand and whistled. He looked over, nodded, and shuffled over.
When he arrived, he heaved his leather messenger bag on the table, where it landed with a wet plop, and then heaved himself down on the chair. He shook his head. “This place. This place. I could have gone to Miami for my Master’s. The rain doesn’t kill you in Miami.”
“Hurricanes,” said The Traveler.
“At least they give you warning,” said The Student. He nodded. “Right, I’m going to get coffee.”
He stood up and left. I nudged the bag off of the table. It hit the floor and water splashed on the table next to us. The people sitting there looked over, I apologized, and they said, “Bloody Americans.” I heard the first note of the Welcome Back Kotter theme, but squelched it before it could take hold.
“Hey,” said The Traveler, “here’s an idea: How bout you and The Student do something?”
“Eh,” I said. “He’s got a girlfriend.”
“I’m not talking about a romantic getaway, here.”
“Thanks. I mean they’ve probably got plans or something. I dunno, I don’t do relationships. Don’t people in those things go out and do stuff together?”
The Traveler arched an eyebrow. “You’re a special kind of stupid, you know that?”
The Student returned to the table with a nearly-overflowing cup of americano. “Right,” he said.
“Hey, Student,” I said.
“What are you up to for the break?”
The Student shrugged. “I was thinking about going into Lille in France to visit a friend of mine from a couple years ago.”
“You and Rebecca aren’t doing anything?”
“Nah. She booked a ticket back to the States a couple of months ago. Why you asking?”
“I’ve got nothing planned for the break, and The Traveler here seems to think I’ll go nuts if I’m sitting around for a month.”
“Seems to think?” asked The Traveler. He snorted. “You’ll go nuts in a fashion that will make Jack Torrance seem like a well-adjusted individual. People will visit your flat to see the walls painted in a fine coating of Zaf.”
“Thanks for the murder insinuation,” I said.
“Yeah, hell, why don’t you come along?” said The Student. “I’ll ask her, of course, but she’ll be cool. Just, you know, bring a gift or something. Don’t want to take advantage, do we?”
“Oh, of course not,” I said.
“So how’s the Post-Industrial Lit class going?” asked The Traveler.
The Student slammed his head on the table and groaned.
“Ah,” I said.
“Has it ever struck you,” said The Traveler, “that you might want to do something you enjoy for your postgrad. You know, something that doesn’t make you want to slam your head on the table whenever it’s mentioned.”
The Student picked his head up off the table. “It’s not that I don’t like literature, cause I do. It’s just that the prevailing canons in academia are so mind-numbingly dull that the only reaction a sane person can have is to cause themselves physical pain so that the mind can have a break.”
“That’s sane?” I asked
The Traveler shrugged.
“Well, look,” said The Student, “there are good bits in Dickens, Conrad, all those authors. But the things that are taught are the ones that are taught from the perspective of making a Point, you know?”
“What do you expect?” I asked. “You’re in university, they have to give you stuff that makes a Point.”
“But the writing is atrocious.”
“So,” said The Traveler, “you want to read from an almost writerly perspective.”
“You could say that. I want stuff that makes a point but is written well. Stuff that’s not necessarily based in the real world. Something about hope rather than the inevitable decline of civilization for one reason or another. I mean, good God, these literary authors must have all been clinically depressed. But,” he continued, “then again, what do I know? I say all that now, but you come to me in a little bit, asking about my views and I might just say the complete opposite.” He sighed. “I hate seeing both sides of the situation. Makes it very hard to make a decision.”
“Easy to hit a word count in an essay, though,” I said.
“Oh, no doubt. However, when a good portion of the word count are the words, ‘on the other hand’ preceding every sentence, professors get bored fairly quickly. At this point, I just want to write this essay for Post-Ind Lit, turn it in, and go into what I’m doing next term.”
The Student grinned, “Literature of Food for one, and Literature of Blindness for the other.”
“And this makes you happy?” asked The Traveler.
“Well, yes,” said The Student.
“You’re mad.”The Student shrugged and took a sip from his coffee.