After returning to your class, you're sitting at your desk when Kenny Potter and Lois Yamaguchi wander in.
Kenny sees you, and you're quite struck by how his pale eyes seem to grow bigger. He starts to move towards the desk, but Miss Yamaguchi stops him, hands him their bags, and pushes him towards their normal seats before coming over and politely asking how you are and if you'll be teaching for the rest of the semester.
After class is over, he comes over while she leaves with both bags. “Are you okay, sir?”
He's slightly taller than you, and for some reason, you remember the first paper he wrote. You always got the impression he was somewhat irritated when he wrote it and tried to sympathise or empathise but ultimately ended up utterly exasperated with the protagonist’s eventual acceptance of social invisibility. His opinion of physical blindness as a metaphor for social unawareness, however, was decidedly sharp and unconcealed.
“I'm fine,” you tell him.
Lois is trying to major in photojournalism and dreams of going to the poorest parts of Africa and other such places to force people in her home country to realise what suffering and tragedy truly is. You imagine this is why the two of them are so close. She'll leave him, eventually, but he'll be proud to see her go. Meanwhile, he rarely speaks, but his papers reveal a boy on the verge of manhood trying to figure out if he's truly the only one (minus her) who sees how insidiously oppressive society can be.
He hesitates, and you repress a sigh. He's so young and untouched by tragedy; he can't possibly understand any of this.
What can you say? 'A friend of mine died? A man I shared my home with for fourteen years died?'
You could, yes, but Jim wasn't merely a friend and the home only became such after he declared it his, too.
“You'd best catch up with Lois, Kenny,” you say.
One day, Charley appears.
Her granddaughter has appendicitis, and she's shaking.
“It'll be fine, kiddo,” you quietly promise. Sitting her down in your chair, you announce, “Due to a family emergency, class is dismissed. Don't worry about the homework assignment.”
Elisabeth is a mulatto who takes after her mother's skin colour. It'll be difficult finding a qualified doctor willing to take proper care of her, but you and Charley have fought tougher battles and won.
Upon seeing Kenny is still in the classroom, you declare, “Not now, Mister Potter.”
You wheel Charley out.
Once you have her in the car with the seatbelt on despite her protests, she inquires, “Who was that boy?”
“Potter,” you answer and find yourself reluctant to go into it for reasons you don't quite understand. “He and his girlfriend seem to have taken me on as a sort of pet project.”
“Ah,” she says. “The plan is: I hit Rita over-”
“Charlotte, you are not harming Mary's mother.”
“She believes in snake healing, and she hates my son. She'd rather see little Elisa die than let us find a doctor, especially a white one, to help.”
“I believe the term is 'snake handling', and if it comes to it, we'll take legal-”
“A good whack with a skillet would be much simpler.”
“You don't even own a skillet.”
“Both she and Mary are excellent cooks; I'm sure one of them does.”
Thankfully, no skillet is wielded, and little Elisa comes out of surgery with nothing more than stomach pains cured by some ginger ale and crackers.
“Is your friend okay, sir,” Kenny inquires.
“Fine, thank you,” you answer.
You wonder how to quell his curiosity.
You slept with Charley when you were young and stupid, but this didn't give anyone the right to tell her husband the two of you were carrying out an extramarital affair.
Flighty, temperamental, and at times, dangerously impulsive, Charlotte is nevertheless steadfastly loyal, and however much it might help you to have people believe part of your bachelorhood is due to unavailability or unsuitability for a more permanent attachment to you on her part, she doesn't deserve to be used in such a way.
Quite simply, she's your best friend, one of the few people you'd willingly die for, and the person you've shared some of your darkest secrets with while never fearing you'd made a mistake in doing so.
He nods and gives you a tentative smile. “I finished the homework assignment.”
You can't help but laugh as you motion for him to hand it to you. “It'll be our little secret, Mister Potter.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Every day, it seems harder to breathe in the morning.
You wake, try to take a breath, and find yourself gasping.
Lois's paper is analytical without any personal opinions slipping through. Kenny's, on the other hand, is sharp with the black ink almost resembling blood as he sarcastically praises those who hide.
You find yourself worrying about him.
He's so young, like Charley once was, and with all his natural privilege, he can't truly understand how necessary invisibility is for some. Arguing it shouldn't be necessary is one thing, but he's getting further from this mindset and instead placing the blame on those who choose to utilise it rather than those who make it necessary for them to do so.
“Lois was surprised at my grade,” he tells you.
“She thought I'd make lower than I did,” he says in the funny way of his you’ve come to dread.
Sometimes, you're tempted to tell him he doesn't have much room to judge others when it's obvious he has something he'd desperately like to say to you. Instead of doing so, he simply says things in a clearly provocative tone while taking care to ensure plausible deniability.
Being much too old and tired for fighting and attempting to make a difference in the lives of the people passing through your classroom, you will continue to take advantage of the plausible deniability unless and until he decides to simply say whatever it is.
“It was a good paper, Kenny.”
“Except for the fact I let my biases slip in.”
“There are six people in this class whose paper I can identify simply by reading a paragraph or two,” you inform him. “You’re among them.”
“Is that good or bad, sir?”
“It’s simply a fact,” you answer. “Your natural writing style isn’t the type for detachment.”
This isn’t surprising. Detached people such as him have to find some way to attach themselves to life, and his way, it seems, is through writing. Lois’s is through photography. Yours used to be through your attachment to Jim and Charley, but the former is dead and things simply aren’t the same between you and Charley anymore.
Suddenly, he resembles a dejected puppy, and you give him a wry smile. “I have no doubt, if you spent the proper amount of time and energy, you could write in a more detached manner. I’m not sure, however, if your writing would be anywhere near as interesting to read.”
Lois reappears and gives him an impatient look.
He nods and licks his lips. “Thank you. Goodbye, sir.”
The idea of you dying appears one night when Charley is drunkenly rambling about something involving shoes.
This is how most of your interactions with her boil down. You both get drunk, and she rambles while you feel the absence of Jim.
You think, perhaps, dying would be simpler. How do I go about that?
Naturally, you realise it’s an absurd, unhealthy thought, but nevertheless, the seed is planted.
The thought comes back when you’re sober, and you seriously contemplate it.
Suicide has always been an abhorrent thought you could never grasp. Jim, however, once said the survival instinct found in humans wasn’t as strong as people liked to believe. ‘I was willing to die for my country,’ he pointed out. ‘I’d be willing to die for you or little Elisa.’
‘That doesn’t comfort me. Elisabeth, yes, of course. But I’d rather no one die for me.’
‘It’s not supposed to comfort you,’ he answered and kissed you. ‘Death is something any healthy person wants to avoid. It’s also something a healthy person will accept under certain circumstances.’
When you think of it, you see there’s nothing to truly stop you. Who you’d be leaving is Charley, and she’s always been more of a fighter than you. What you’d be leaving is nothing too great. The university would survive easily without you, and so would your current class.
Kenny waves, and you decide not to dismiss the class as you’d planned. You doubt you can sway his opinion, but you think, perhaps, one of them will listen, at least. Someone will understand those who utilise social invisibility aren’t simply cowards. Right or wrong, the onus for change is on the majority. Only occasionally, can the minority change things, and this is only because the majority is finally worn down.
You aren’t sure how you wound up here.
Kenny was a normal, if interesting, student, and now, suddenly, he’s an impossibly attractive, dangerously young boy who has found out your address, bought you a pencil sharpener, possibly declared himself one of the invisible he holds such disdain for, and is now running around your house almost completely naked.
‘Think this might a sign, old man,’ a voice sounding remarkably like Jim inquires within your head.
No, you don’t think. This is, without a doubt, a sign of something, but you are utterly lost as to how to read it.
‘No, you’re not,’ another voice caustically replies; it reminds you of Kenny’s almost bleeding writing.
“I feel like I can talk to you,” Kenny says.
Ah, there it is.
In your drunken, possibly concussed state, you look at this boy, and you realise you may not be fond of living at the moment, but you aren’t ready to die, either. Kenny and Lois, whether they’re minorities or part of the majority, are going to change the world, somehow, a fact you’re sure of, and you want to see this world once they do. You went into teaching to watch people grow, and you’re not ready to stop; you are still fascinated by how knowledge can shape people and amazed at some of the ways people find to utilise it.
Aside from them, there are others in your class who have so much potential, and you want to see if you can help unleash it.
You wish there were someone you feel you can talk to, but you can be there for Kenny. Perhaps, eventually, you’ll feel comfortable enough to tell him to ask and say all those things he isn’t completely comfortable saying, yet.
“I’m fine,” you assure him. You realise everything is blurry. “I’m fine.”
You wake up and realise how easily your breath flows.