I’m smoking on the front porch. It’s cold out and misty, and the mist seems to give the chill a quality like needles. The porch is a barren concrete slab adorned only with the aluminum folding chair I’m sitting in and a mason jar I flick my ashes and old butts into. I can feel the skin on my arms goosebump beneath the terrycloth shirt I’m wearing. Steam rises from a vent in the crawl space, and against the neighbor’s porch light it shines and wavers, an effervescent belly dancer.
“I want you to know I haven’t forgotten about the assistanceship,” my old adviser told me earlier. He stopped by my job to pick up a coffee and recognized me. We’ve only ever communicated by email the last three years. I tell him I’m grateful and I mean it. The university doesn’t strictly require work experience for their graduate program, but with so many applying you don’t stand a chance of acceptance if you don’t read the phrase de facto between the lines.
Just a few weeks earlier, he and three other former profs of mine filled out an emailed index, telling the university how much of an asset they believed I could be. The university emailed confirmations to me, letting me know each response had been received. The trick now is to ensure my file doesn’t become a small tomb in the registrar’s office. Indolence sounds a lot like the burr of a coffee grinder to me.
The professor I’ve been emailing at the university tells me she’s excited at the idea of me joining her program, though she isn’t shy about admitting that my rather sparse work experience worries her. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life in college, up until and during graduation. My GPA shows it, as does my four-years-and-running coffee making career afterward. I’ve kept up with my habit of emailing researchers whose work interests me, including the professor at the university I desperately want to attend. Thus I at least have a show of interest on my side, despite the flaky decade in my rear-view mirror.
At home, above my desk, there’s a plank of framed cork board adorned with applications for programs and scholarships I either never completed or never mailed off. I look at it whenever I need an existential kick in the ass for motivation.
When I got home earlier I checked my email. One story was accepted, to a popular podcast that can’t afford to pay its contributors. Another, one I’m much more proud of, was rejected by a professional magazine, on the grounds that the characters weren’t likable enough. No comments regarding quality are made. The submission guidelines encourage writers to be bold, but I’ve noticed that every purchased story follows the same general structure. Out of spite, I resubmit it, entirely unaltered, and then go outside for a smoke.
The woman I love has called me a couple times today, but I was working so all she could do was leave voicemails. One tells me she’s driving down to visit family, and wants to see me. The other tells me she just misses me, and wants to talk. I hit the callback button. Her phone rings four or five times, and my call goes to voice mail.
“Hey, it’s me,” I say inanely. What else do you say to those who know you better than you know yourself? If I’d told her my name just now it would’ve felt like a white lie. “I just wanted to tell ya I’m excited for your visit. I don’t have any plans, so shoot me a text whenever you can. Love you. Talk to you soon.”
The plans I’d already made are wiped away from my mind. I hang up and take a drag on my cigarette. I think of the school my adviser mentioned, out in Arizona, which he says has a marvelous student aid program. Arizona is a bit of a hike for someone whose parents may, at any time, need a ride to the hospital.
The muffled grunt of an engine wafts over from…somewhere. Streetlights bleed into the mist. I huff out a last mouthful of smoke and drop the butt into the Mason jar. I stand and stretch. The paperwork I’ve been avoiding will become concrete as soon as I step inside. The neighboring houses fade gently down the road. If it weren’t for the trees, this mist would go on forever.