Thoughts on life after the PhD
I guess it’s not surprising that a lot of humanities Phd’s are frustrated fiction writers or poets. Over the years I’ve met some whose work was so good that I kind of wanted to take their hand and guide them away from the university and toward literary agents (not that I know the first thing about getting fiction published). I think some of us seek out careers in academia because it seems, comparatively, like a less terrifying choice that being a full-time fiction writer. Though with the academic job statistics the way they are today, I’m not so sure that that’s true anymore.
Anyway, I write stuff. I’ve been writing stuff since I was eight or nine. The first thing I actually remember writing was a short story called “The Haunted Hotel,” which was 80% a ripoff of a Scooby Doo episode. Still, I wrote it out by hand, my father typed it on a typewriter, and then he had it bound for me in a blue folder.
I wrote a lot of fairy and unicorn stories in high school and a lot of angsty poetry. After college I fell into a common trap and started endless pieces of writing but never finished them, unable to silence what Julia Cameron calls the “inner critic.” Every now and then I would submit something to a literary magazine or contest, but never with any actual hope of winning or being published.
Since I finished the PhD I’ve been trying to write more. It’s hard. The inner critic isn’t as much of a problem as it used to be, but often I just don’t have the energy, and I’m alarmingly prone to online distractions. And sometimes I just prefer to read what other people write instead of writing my own stuff.
But I’m still trying. I go to writers’ workshops once or twice a month, just to have a place to do fun writing exercises and be around other people who like to write. I write stuff that I delete immediately, just exercises that I don’t want to dwell on.
I’m usually terrified of sharing my fiction or poetry with anyone, because I don’t want them to feel like they have to praise it, and I’m scared of trolls (not a very rational fear, given that on a good day this blog gets a few hundred hits, mostly from people looking for Jamie Oliver’s pasta with peas and pancetta recipe). But I wrote something recently, and I thought I’d buck the fear and share it. It started as a writing exercise in one of those workshops. The prompt was “Over 900,000 people are reported “missing” each year.”
So here it is. It’s about nine pages if you read it as a Word document. If you like it, great. If you hate it, well, there’s a wealth of other fiction out there to read. And if you have helpful suggestions for improvement, I’d love to hear them. Seriously, I would. I know people always say that when what they really want is just a lot of compliments, but I spent eight years as a lit grad student. I’m used to harsh-but-helpful critiques.
It was a nice picture, Miriam realized.
Her daughter’s usually disheveled hair was actually combed, her face lit by a small triangle of sunlight coming in through the kitchen window. Lucy wasn’t smiling—Miriam couldn’t remember the last time her daughter had smiled, or at least smiled sincerely—but she looked at peace, not sullen, not annoyed. She was wearing a grey turtleneck and a collection of beaded necklaces, one with a skull, but at least she’d taken out her nose ring.
Miriam had been surprised when Lucy had asked to have her picture taken. Her daughter had her own phone-camera, though Miriam had never seen her use it. More surprising, though, was her daughter’s asking for anything. Their communication over the past year had been mostly limited to reprimands and angry looks or one-word questions and answers. So to hear the words, “Mom, would you take my picture?” was like a gift from another life.
Lucy had been very specific about what she wanted and had asked her mother to re-take the picture three times. Miriam had gone along with it, savoring every moment of this rare connection, though the whole event had probably lasted less than a minute. When it was over Lucy had taken the camera to her room, uploaded the photos to her own computer, and then left the camera on the kitchen counter.
When a printer arrived on the doorstep the next day Miriam hadn’t given it much thought. She’d been curious when she heard it printing for hours from inside Lucy’s room, but had learned from past experience not to snoop unless she genuinely thought her daughter was in danger.
She wished she’d never taken the picture. She wished she’d hidden the printer when it arrived.
Not that it would have changed anything. Probably not.
The phone calls started a few days later.
The conversations were always the same, and Miriam found herself answering questions that made no sense, and giving answers that made less.
“I’m sorry, there must be some mistake…she’s here, yes, I’m looking at her right now. She’s sitting on the sofa watching TV. What TV? I’m sorry, I really don’t know…right, well it looks like it’s something in French. I’m sorry, I’d tell you more but I don’t speak French. No, there aren’t any subtitles.”
After the fifth call she’d unplugged the house phone, turned off her cell phone and walked outside. The first photo was posted at the end of the street, on a telephone pole. Another one was tucked under the windshield wiper of a car. By the time she made it to the intersection at Windsor and Raleigh she’d seen seven of them.
“Sweetie, if you want to talk, we can talk. About anything.”
She hated the words the minute they’d left her mouth. Lucy ignored her. The light from the television screen played across her sharply angled face, reflected in eyes that were open but didn’t seem to be looking at anything. The only sound from the TV was a low buzzing. Miriam knew without stepping in front to look that it was tuned to a dead channel.
She tried again. “I know you’re just expressing yourself…” Dear God no, not that. “I want you to feel free to express yourself, as long as, you know, you’re not hurting yourself or anyone else. I really do.”
No response. Lucy stared ahead, unmoving. At times like these Miriam was always tempted to place a mirror under her nose.
“But I’m sorry…I really…” She cleared her throat. “I have to insist that you stop putting up these signs.”
The response caught Miriam off guard. Lucy had turned her head, only a slight movement, but she was now looking at her mother directly, which was always unnerving. Miriam cleared her throat again.
Why am I explaining this? This is not the sort of thing one should need to explain.
“…because…because you’re not missing, sweetie.” She forced confidence into her words.
“Yes I am.”
Miriam groaned. “Lucy, I understand that, metaphorically speaking, you might feel–“
“This isn’t a metaphor.”
“I’m getting a dozen calls a day.” The patience was leaking out of her voice. “From neighbors, police, even your aunt Jeannie, and she lives in Denton!”
Lucy had gone back to ignoring her and staring at the television screen. Miriam tried again.
“You do realize there are people who really ARE missing? Nine hundred thousand every year, according to what I’ve read? How do you think it makes them feel to see taped-up pictures of a girl who is most definitely NOT missing?”
“What it is to be missing.”
Miriam clenched her fists at her sides. “Lucy, I have put up with the silent treatment, I have put up with pot found in your room that you SWEAR is not yours, I have put up with John-the-mechanic-who-was-twenty-when-you-were-fourteen. But I swear, if you put up one more of those signs I will ground you until graduation.”
Lucy regarded her mother like a mildly interested house pet before returning her attention to the TV screen. “Fine. I don’t need to put up anymore anyway.”
Miriam sighed. “Well, thank goodness for that.”
“I don’t need to put them up because they have a life of their own now. Other people will do it for me.”
By the next week the phone calls had mostly stopped, and when Miriam walked up to the Windsor and Raleigh intersection she only saw one or two of the signs (she’d long since given up trying to take them all down). Feeling at peace for the first time in a month, she went back to the house, got into her car, and drove to the grocery store. She managed to not think about Lucy until she got home and got the bags of groceries into the kitchen, when there was a knock at the door.
The woman who greeted her was somewhat gaunt, like her daughter, and a bit pale. She looked to be about sixteen and was dressed in a faded red shirt with a cartoon character on the front, ripped jeans, and thick sandals. She stared sullenly upward at Miriam.
“I’m here for the meeting.”
“I’m sorry, meeting?”
“The Missing meeting. It starts at five.” She handed Miriam a crumpled piece of paper.
The smile that had formed with the intent of reassuring this girl that she’d gotten the wrong house faded slowly from Miriam’s face as she unfolded the paper and stared at her own daughter’s face. It was the same photo, but the sign was different. It didn’t just say “missing.” There was a date and a time at the bottom. Today’s date. Five pm.
The girl seemed to take her confusion for acceptance and wandered into the living room. Miriam opened her mouth to object but nothing came out.
Within half an hour Miriam found herself in the kitchen opening up a tube of cinnamon rolls and setting Saltine crackers and cheese on a plate. No one had asked her to, but it was clear that Lucy hadn’t prepared anything, and it didn’t seem right for a group of people to be gathered without anything to eat, even if they all considered themselves, in a way, not really there. It was also an excuse to venture into the living room, where she could hear their discussion more clearly than she could in the kitchen.
She placed the freshly baked and frosted cinnamon rolls and the cheese and crackers on the battered coffee table just as one of the women—there were around ten people, she realized, and only two of them were men—launched into a particularly passionate speech.
“There’s nothing wrong with checking out. It’s a natural reaction, to declare yourself Missing. Because what are you Missing from, really? Nothing worth sticking around for.”
“So why don’t we just die?” Miriam noticed that this girl seemed to have scars on her arms.
“Because that’s letting them win. When you’re Missing you’re still here, but you’re only here for yourself.”
Miriam had lingered as long as she felt was possible without arousing suspicion, but just as she turned to leave the woman looked at her.
“Your daughter’s doing very important work,” she said.
Miriam froze and stared at the woman, who had a tattoo of a flock of birds that ran from her neck down into her minimal cleavage. She wore a sundress and had her brightly dyed red hair pulled back into a very messy bun.
Miriam glanced over at Lucy just in time to see something she hadn’t seen in years—a smile. It was gone almost instantly, and Lucy was looking at the floor.
They met once a week. Miriam got to know some of their names, though they never interacted with her beyond a nod or a basic greeting. She had overheard something about “the Still Here,” a category to which she assumed she now belonged. The Missing did not associate with the Still Here more than was necessary.
Miriam continued to bring them food. She had thought of shouting at all of them and sending them home to their parents—they were mostly teenagers, anyway—but they all looked so forlorn, so lacking in any sense of teenage defiance, that she didn’t have the heart for it. So she made food, which they mostly ate, though there were always leftovers. She suspected some of them were vegans—it was the cheese that was generally left behind.
Some of them she came to know better than others, if only because she could hear their voices more clearly from the kitchen. The redhead with the tattoo was called Ruth. Lucy might have put up the signs, but it was Ruth who ran the meetings. There was another one called Gillian, a slightly chubby girl with short brown hair and glasses who always seemed folded in on herself whenever Miriam entered the room, but who added thoughtful poetry to their manifestos. There was Kim, who cried a lot. Sebastian, the lone boy, who had a rather high-pitched voice for a boy and seemed to speak only to express hearty agreement.
Books told Miriam that things like this tended to flare up and burn out quickly—one minute it was adolescent boy bands, then it was animal rights, then it was a hatred for anything and everything mainstream. This could be just one of those moments. It was a bit extreme, yes, but there was no evidence that it would last.
She still couldn’t tell if this movement had any clear momentum. They met at least once or twice a week and spoke passionately about a variety of topics, but there didn’t seem to be any drive to stage a march, or circulate a petition, or gather on the steps of the state capitol building, as Miriam and her college friends might have done twenty-five years ago.
When one of the meetings ended and she was washing dishes Lucy actually joined her, silently bringing plates and cups in from the living room and placing them in the sink. Miriam noticed, not for the first time, that her daughter seemed to be standing up straighter than before.
“So…are you going to stage a protest?” Miriam tried to make the question as casual as possible.
Lucy looked confused. “What kind of protest?”
“I don’t know…you’re meeting all the time, you’re writing manifestos…most of the time a protest is the next logical step.”
“We don’t think that’s necessary.”
Lucy’s tone wasn’t hostile or dismissive. It was almost gentle, the same sort of tone Miriam herself had used when her daughter was little.
She hid the tiniest smile from Lucy as they continued to wash dishes.
“So what does it mean to be Missing?”
That afternoon’s meeting had been particularly vocal. Almost all the dishes they were washing were completely empty of food. By now Miriam had stopped putting out cheese and had sought out recipes for vegan dips.
Miriam had tried her best to make it sound like she was saying “Missing” with a capital “M,” the way she had heard Ruth insist on saying it. She still wasn’t sure how one conveyed capitalization through voice, but they all seemed to think it was important.
Lucy gave a slight shrug. “You hear most of what we say. You probably know by now what it means.”
There was surliness in her daughter’s tone, but given that Lucy was here, washing dishes, and not in her room with the door closed, Miriam had learned not to read too much into it.
“I know. I just want to know what it means for you.”
That was risky, she knew. Lucy was rarely willing to talk about anything personal. She let the sound of running water hang between them for what seemed like a long time.
“It means…I don’t know. That I’m making myself invisible before other people can refuse to see me. See me for who I really am.”
Miriam let that sink in for a moment, and then, still feeling bold, asked “Who are you really?”
Another long pause. “I don’t know yet. I just know I’m not what everybody says I’m supposed to be.”
“Is it okay that I’m not Missing?”
Lucy gave a short laugh. “Yeah, I guess. Ruth thinks we shouldn’t associate too much with the Still Here, but I don’t think everybody has to be Missing.” She rinsed the last dish and put it in the drying rack. “But you could be Missing if you wanted to.”
Lucy retreated to her room. Miriam stood in the center of the kitchen in her bare feet, idly wondering if she could declare herself Missing and join their group officially, if only to be closer to Lucy and something that clearly meant a lot to her. The thought vanished almost as soon as it had arrived. She was too old, too out of touch. Too steadfastly Still Here.
But it was comforting to know that Lucy would have included her.
When the knock on the door came midway through one of their meetings Miriam was surprised. These days the members mostly didn’t bother to knock, just walked in and headed straight for the living room. Some addressed her by name, and some had (thankfully) taken to bringing their own food and drink.
When she opened the door she saw three women and one man who she could immediately tell were not there for the meeting. For one thing, they were older, close to Miriam’s age. Their clothes were clean-cut and unwrinkled. Their expressions when she opened the door were grim, though they softened somewhat when they saw her.
“Does Lucy Fullers live here?” It was the oldest woman who spoke, the one with hair pulled back in a bun, large rhinestone earrings, and a brightly printed blouse.
Miriam felt a stirring of unease. “Yes. Yes she does, I’m her mother.”
At that moment she looked down and saw that one of the other women was carrying one of the paper printouts with Lucy’s picture on it. She didn’t move away from the door.
The man spoke next. “Is she here? Can we speak to her?”
Miriam wished in that moment that she were clever enough to come up with a retort that indicated no, she would not allow them to speak to her daughter. But she simply answered, “Yes, she’s in the living room, come with me.”
Ruth was in the midst of one of her speeches when they walked in, standing while the others sat. She said something about the “plight of the Missing” and turned quickly when she saw the others’ eyes gravitating toward the door.
Her face underwent a rapid series of changes. Like Miriam, she first seemed to believe that the newcomers were there for the meeting, but then she took in their age, their clothes, and the expressions on their faces, and she looked momentarily confused. Then she saw the paper that one of the women was holding, and her face looked hostile.
“Who are you?” she asked.
The woman with the bun and the rhinestone earrings ignored her. She walked straight up to Lucy and held the paper in front of her face.
“Is this you?” she asked.
Lucy looked at the ground, then toward Ruth, and then finally met the woman’s eyes and nodded. The woman with the bun stepped back and crumpled the paper—a harsh, unexpected sound that echoed through the room.
“I suppose I had to see it for myself,” she said quietly. “That you were, you know, here. And not buried in a field. Which is where they found my daughter. She was ten.”
Miriam felt her cheeks grow hot. She had a vivid flashback of being in a movie theater at age five and being told by a stranger to “shut up,” the unique and vivid horror that comes with a strange adult reprimanding you, even if your mother has scolded you in the same way hundreds of times.
“His son’s been missing for ten years,” the woman with the bun continued, gesturing to the man in their group. “Technically still missing, though we learn to let go by then. Her daughter’s only been gone a few months.” She gestured to one of the other women. “She’s still putting up signs. It does help, sometimes.”
Everyone in the room seemed to be avoiding looking at everyone else. Only Ruth remained standing, and now she came to stand between the woman with the bun and Lucy.
“We’re very sorry for your losses. We know,” and Miriam wished she could have reached across the room and closed her mouth before the next words came out, “what it is to be Missing.”
Miriam thought she heard Kim, the one who cried a lot, make a choking sound. The woman with the bun studied Ruth.
“You know,” she said, in a voice that terrified Miriam, “what it is to be missing.”
“Yes, we do.” She smiled. “It was Lucy who showed us the way, putting up the signs. She showed us that your physical self can still be present, even if the rest of you has left, and that it’s just as bad as—“
Ruth’s mouth froze. She turned slowly to see Lucy stand and step between her and the woman with the bun. Miriam watched, mesmerized.
“I’m sorry.” Lucy’s voice trembled slightly, but then grew firmer, and she met the woman’s eyes. “I’m sorry.”
Ruth started to speak but then seemed to think better of it. The woman with the bun gave a curt nod.
“It’s okay. I did some stupid shit when I was your age.”
The woman led the other two of the living room. A moment later, silently, everyone else in the living room moved quietly toward the door, one by one. Gillian kept her face down and put her plate and cup in the kitchen first. Only Ruth and Lucy were left.
Ruth’s face was holding a fierce debate between tears and defiance. She opened her mouth twice and then finally drew herself up as tall as she could, turned quickly, and walked out the front door, making a point of slamming it.
Miriam didn’t move. She wanted to hold Lucy, or provide her with some kind of parental wisdom, but Lucy looked like a glass figurine that might shatter at any moment, so she simply waited. After a few minutes she began gathering the plates and cups. Lucy joined her, washed a few of the dishes in silence, and then went to her room and closed the door.
Ruth came by one more time and knocked. Miriam viewed her cross-armed figure through the peephole and didn’t open the door. Lucy was in her room, though Miriam was fairly sure she could hear the knocking. She thought of going and telling her who it was, but didn’t. After five minutes Ruth left.
A week later Miriam was leaving the doctor’s office across town when she saw, lying on the pavement and well-covered in shoe prints, a familiar-looking sign. It was Ruth’s face, not Lucy’s. There was information about a meeting, a few days away. There were no other signs nearby. She wondered who had taken them down.
The following week she was up late one night and heard printer noises in Lucy’s room. She waited until Lucy was at school the next day and let herself in, telling herself that it wasn’t snooping as long as she didn’t touch anything or open any drawers.
The room was covered in printouts. Miriam’s first impression was that they were beautiful. They were Lucy’s face, photographed from a dozen different angles, sometimes with one angle layered on top of another, sometimes in the style of a celluloid negative, sometimes in brilliant purple or green. The arrangement on the walls at first seemed random, but on closer inspection Miriam could see that the images were grouped by color, or by style, little clusters of faces.
In some of them she was smiling. Sometimes two or three smiles on top of one another.
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