Longtime townie Jeff Brunell finally returned to school just before turning thirty. He’s in southern India, completing his graduate field work and taking stock. These are his findings. To see the entire series start here.
Until told otherwise, I will arrive at the very last minute. Today, I’m told otherwise: breakfast, 8 a.m. And that’s 8 a.m. sharp, not 8:55.
I’m en route to register for wi-fi when I run into Mr. Rahul and he relays the message from the kitchen staff. He adds, “Please be upstairs for the welcome program at 9:15.”
Incredulous by reflex, I ask, “I thought you said 9:30.”
Next thought: why am I disputing fifteen minutes when I have nowhere else to be?
So I show up at 9:15 and wait until nearly 9:40. By then, I’ve sweat through my shirt while trying to look casual. I’m reeling in fever and propped up on the garden ledge outside the auditorium; pressed and decorous undergrads move past me in waves.
When Lena and Michele arrive, they recognize immediately that I’m not well and urge me to take the Cipro already. They’re leading a procession of the other Marylanders and our assigned student buddies. Everyone met up downstairs, they say – where was I?
The tradition of fast friendship by circumstance has never been an easy fit for me, and I look distinctly gut-shot at pleasantries when I’m sick. But I fire up the monosyllabic jets and smile ghoulishly while the crowd throbs around me. My clammy handshake makes the rounds and then, fortune smiles. I meet my assigned buddy and we’re wearing the same sympathetic and half-terrified face.
We enter the welcome session with great ceremony; all guests handed tiny flowers as we pass through the archway into the meeting hall. After some introductory preamble, each one of the assembled students and faculty members takes a turn standing, greeting us, and individually wishing us well. It’s incredibly personal and sweet. Then: we’re told to do the same. I try to sound serious, but nice. My shirt is unmistakably saturated.
After a PowerPoint and a speech, the teachers and administrators exit as a group. The students visibly relax.
They suggest a game and we stand in a circle, maybe forty of us. Rules: the first person points to somebody else. That person ducks fast. The two people to either side of them aim their fingers and shoot each other, shouting, “Bang!” Somebody’s out: one of the shooters or a too-slow ducker. The successful shooter gets next pick. It makes a great ice breaker: temperamental motives go on rare display, and there’s no way for anyone to avoid looking silly.
Into the garden for more great tea; I camp out beside the urn. During my second cup, I almost fall into natural conversation with the young woman standing next to me. Five sentences deep in an honest exchange about the weather, someone intercedes: “She’s married.”
It’s time to register online with the state police. I take my turn at the computer station and proceed until the ‘Passport’ section has a field labeled ‘city.’ Does it want the small town of my birth, the nearest city of record nearby to it, or the city in which I submitted my application? I don’t know this detail of my passport’s backstory, so I ask the attending technician. I’m told, firmly, that I should type MASSACHUSETTS.
The new all-time worst photo series is next on the agenda. Here I am, posing for the guest log: Jeff is a visiting student from Baltimore, Maryland, USA. He is evidently liquefying from the inside out. The last, special for the police, has me looking funhouse gaunt, super pale, baggy eyed, and suspicious, indeed. For the umpteenth time, I try to find comfort in Ani Difranco’s epiphany: “It took me too long to realize/that I don’t take good pictures/cuz I have the kind of beauty that moves.” Maybe true in her case. But this picture is pure Bat Boy, age 60.
Maybe tomorrow, I take the Cipro. .
I sleep for a long time but I’m still a mess. When Michele, caring and conscientious, shows up to breakfast with antibiotics to spare, I cave to consensus reason. Two now, and a third in twelve hours, that’s the full course. Her doctor told her that if they don’t knock out whatever’s happening, get to a clinic.
It’s tough to stay vertical this morning and I hate that I can’t pin why. This ear ache and my locking knee may be due to unfamiliar barometric shifts, and I could just as easily ascribe this gum pain to the airline toothbrush as to my imminent and touching demise. My first dip below the Tropic of Cancer may explain the new reptile skin and championship sweat. Mysteries abound, but my investment in self-care gives me a little psychosomatic boost.
Kali notes my hesitancy regarding the Cipro and asks if I’m religious; a Christian Scientist, maybe. I say no, but that her social work radar is on point. I grew up with plenty of church and this reaction is, indeed, a leftover of some kind. But my mom’s holistic streak, antecedent to my own Luddite tendencies, was actually the pagan exception in my otherwise godly childhood.
Into the classroom, for introductory lectures designed to get our brains engaged and bodies acclimated to trick echoes and balmy temperatures. There’s this other thing: word has it that there’s almost no caffeine in the chai we’re drinking, nor in the 20 oz. Pepsi I’ve rationed for three days now. So consider withdrawal effects when drawing up the chart for my recent disturbances. Observe: my process, a little sticky in the first session, where we stepped through some basic words and short phrases in Malayalam, the local language. And naked addiction probably accounts best for the outsized clanging I feel in my skull today whenever people talk over each other, though I find that kind of thing outrageous in general. I’m straining to visualize the terms, which the instructor only writes on the board by request, so I’m not particularly confident in the notes I’m taking.
Anyway, it’s a good kind of headache after a month of too much day job and slack.
Mr. Rahul leads the second session, addressing national and regional politics. He’s a passionate teacher, knowledgeable and subversive, and his eyes sparkle when he speaks about indigenous peoples and the rights of workers. It makes more sense to me now why I hadn’t quite understood him in the public relations role of a cruise director. I’ve been concerned that our first interactions presaged an uneasy alliance but I think that I was wrong.
A student from last year’s cohort is back in Kerala as a liaison to our US school. After lunch, Jordan takes everyone but me into town to buy clothes. I know that I’ll need to face the purchase of a couple more shirts and some thinner pants, but I don’t want a crowd for that kind of anguish. Besides, I have a writing project hanging over my head and I want to upload some copy today.
The internet is crawling and the IT guys are, at best, indifferent to my hardship. I can’t determine whether the school’s system is blocking certain content or whether the connection is just so slow that it’s timing out before I can post. No one else appears to be struggling like this; it’s very possible that I’m overlooking something basic. The computers have SVGA graphics, like I coveted in 1994. That was the last time I knew what was going on.
I eventually manage to fire off the first entry after realizing, God, I’m feeling crazy surly over bad internet. I save a few emails to my desktop and dash from the lab to the covered terrace in the middle of campus; nobody around. I sit, watch the monsoon, and write my replies offline. Celly sent a message after all, and I’m sorting out my reply when I’m approached by a little kid of six or so. I say hello and resume typing; he stays nearby while I listen to music and keep at my letter. Finally, it occurs to me to unplug the headphones and share what I’m playing, since neither of us knew the other’s language. It’s a Wussy song – how did I miss this band for ten years? – and the kid grins. I skip to The Beach Boys’ Heroes and Villains and he laughed in a way that bubbled over. After that, I put on something by Hot Chip. He spun around and ran off like an airplane.
A very serious MBA student appears and introduces himself as Irya. He asks me, “What are you doing,” like I’ve been caught trespassing, though I don’t think it’s meant that way. Apparently satisfied with my reply that I’m writing an email to my ex, he asks if I’ll be coming to the gym.
I surprise myself and give it a shot, exercising more deliberately than I ever have in my life. On the chest pumping machine, I face the damage I’ve done my shoulders through Ultra Labor’s amateur big screen and piano juggling. The whole scene makes me feel silly enough, and then somebody puts on Linkin Park. Factor in the heat and pollution; this is a fairly hardcore occasion.
So when I first quit smoking, Eddie gave me some advice. He said that I’d have to make up a whole new identity. I didn’t like that idea; I was pretty deeply identified with commiseration out by the dumpster, thanks. I didn’t want to turn sanctimonious, like I had something to protect. Going to the gym always seemed like that, or like using suntan lotion. A province of idiots, I mean.
Except: I have six months ahead, with cheap pastries and internet calling me to the rocks, and I’m probably utterly wrong again.