Life was hell, if you missed the last bus. Life was hell in our suburb anyway. We lived in the better part of the newly formed city, I was reminded every time I criticized it. But the walk home, across the bridge and through the not-so-better part of the newly formed city, where people drank their beer on the porch without bothering to pour it into a glass, was long and arduous. You wanted to avoid being seen by passing motorists, half of whom felt delighted by the sight of your thighs. Some day I should carry a pair of jeans to school, change into them there, but not change out of them on the way home. She would say something if she saw me, but they were always downstairs watching TV when I came in, so I could quickly go to my room and change. Sometimes I could even stay in my room and they wouldn’t bother checking how my day had been. Generally you came downstairs, sat on the couch and let your presence sink in, while the TV news anchor spoke of something really important.
But missing the last bus, your delayed arrival meant they would be in the kitchen, setting the breakfast table. They had questions ready for you, why were you so late? Why didn’t you call, we could have driven to pick you up at the subway station. We don’t think you should be out so late.
Ideally, I would have stayed at the university all night. The place, I was told, was super quiet, and you could program and reprogram the machine as much as you wanted, without anyone interrupting you or the machine. It was a dream.
From my bedroom window that night, I watched the snow falling in the glow of the streetlight. The double-paned window was not frozen yet, and you could open them to feel how cold the air was, outside. In the morning I would start with my father in his car, shortening the ride to the university by half an hour, and enjoying the warmth of the car. I would go down the stairs with him to the garage, wait for him to drive out, so I would close the garage door and run to the passenger side, shaking the fresh snow off my boots before getting in. He had the same radio program on every day. They said jokes that weren’t funny, political jokes I guessed, or jokes about the personality of politicians and other public figures. And then the radio host had diverse personae who were supposed to be from different ethnicities, and it was all supposed to be funny. I wasn’t sure about my father’s sense of humor, he rarely laughed at anything. He never cried either. I suppose he liked that radio host, although one should point out the alternatives on the other stations were what? Talk about hockey? So the radio was better than silence. Silence is dangerous, for it begets questions about me, my life, what I think I’ll do in life.
In the morning, the good news are that the roads are impossible to travel on, and the snowplow drivers are on strike. The bad news for me are that a deadline is approaching, and I need access to the machine at the university.
My father is a most logical rational person, and after explaining that I could either fail or succeed based on how I would have to run for the last bus, he agreed to let me set a cot in his office so I could get some sleep late at night. I knew some people did that, especially in the CS department, where overnight work was a sick kind of badge of honor. It meant you were ready to do anything to succeed.
The fresh “DO NOT DUPLICATE” key fit perfectly into the lock at P-130, after a quiet and eerie walk through empty corridors where all you feared was to meet the nightwatch. My father’s office was large, with big bookshelves not only carrying books but also samples of rocks and minerals and whatever those fossils may be. The cot, to be assembled, he had obtained recently in the hope he would resume his long gone days of exploring the north. The desk, I sat at for a few minutes, enjoying the swivel and the odd satisfaction of real oak wood. Drawers unlocked. Ink, and blotters, signs of an older time.
A letter, in his handwriting, what is it? I delight in reading his words, in the pointy letters that he writes, unfortunately a rare experience for me as he’ll write a terse “happy birthday” or “merry christmas” with it to me, and that will be the end of how he feels. This letter to S., and you already know who that is, disturbs you not because it is to a mistress (and presumably these are words she will never read, these are the words of the fantasy he’s having about her, maybe he’s masturbating while he’s writing these words, safe from the thought that the door to his office is locked), but because it is written by someone you have never heard of, someone with feelings that have never been expressed towards you or anyone you have lived with. And the drawer closes, quickly, and you regret the curiosity. It is as if you had opened the tabernacle and touched the gold, eaten the wafers, drunk the wine…
They have pancakes at the cafeteria, but the syrup isn’t maple, so you skip that. You abhor bacon and eggs, it reminds you of the breakfast forced on you by the requirements of travel. You always were sick in that car with a red interior. They always claimed they were better drivers than the drivers of the cars they collided with. So you settle for snack-pack size Rice Krispies and a milk carton. Your friend M. is already there, he lives in the dorms as he is from a far enough town to actually need a dorm room. You admire his organization, his neatness, everybody does. He is surprised by your appearance.
“I slept in my dad’s office,” I said, when he asked why I was here, and trying to justify my looks.
He doesn’t have access to the women’s showers, but even if he did, he wouldn’t offer to let me in. He is the kind of person who doesn’t take hints unless they’re delivered by assertive macho guys. I hate him for that, that he likes guys that I hate.
“I’ve finished the project,” I announce, sweeping the Rice Krispies awkwardly with the plastic spoon from the corners of the box.
I don’t really hear the rest of what he says, because it has to do with how others managed to finish, or not, their projects, and there are no holes in the conversation for the anecdote, if that can be called an anecdote, of finding your own father’s handwriting expressing what he has never said to you, which would be overwhelming to anyone listening, for what would they say?
There are no morning CS classes, that is almost an oxymoron. What we have instead are the other departments filling in, such as the lab where G. is your partner and you try to figure out what knob to turn on an oscilloscope to obtain a nice, sinusoidal curve. G. is nice, he reminds you of a little dog that has been beaten and is looking to cuddle in your lap. Of course, he’s much too shy and afraid to cuddle in anyone’s lap. He’s also young, much too young to even understand that his father could have an affair. But I like G., he’s so clueless that he doesn’t fear checking out the knobs on the oscilloscope, and very soon we get a nice sinusoidal curve on the oscilloscope and declare victory that we transcribe in semi-scientific terms on our lab notebook. We will get an A. And it seems it is all that counts right there, in this life. We try to obtain the expected result, sometimes we get it, other times we struggle. Sometimes it is right in your face and you just can’t see it.