For the yellow, they are guided into soundproof cubes the size of closets, ones that amplify the noise, and others that seem to swallow every breath. It is a hall of mirrors, if the bending surfaces warped a voice instead of a reflection.
The first message tells them to WHISPER, the word stenciled on the wall in small, black type, and when Addie whispers “I have a secret,” the words bend and loop and wrap around them.
The next tells them to SHOUT, this stenciled word as large as the wall it’s written on. Henry can’t bring himself to go above a small, self-conscious holler, but Addie draws a breath and roars, the way you would beneath a bridge if a train was going by, and something in the fearless freedom of it gives him air, and suddenly he is emptying his lungs, the sound guttural and broken, as wild as a scream.
And Addie doesn’t shrink away. She simply raises her voice, and together they shout themselves breathless, they scream themselves hoarse, they leave the cubes feeling dizzy and light. His lungs will hurt tomorrow, and it will be worth it.
By the time they stumble out, sound rushing back into their ears, the sun is going down, and the clouds are on fire, one of those strange spring nights that casts an orange light on everything.
They walk over to the nearest rail and look out at the city, the light reflecting on the buildings, streaking sunset across steel, and Henry pulls her back against him, kisses the crook of her neck, smiling into her collar.
He is sugar-high and a little drunk, and happier than he has ever been.
Addie is better than any little pink umbrella.
She is better than strong whisky on a cold night.
Better than anything he’s felt in ages.
When Henry is with her, time speeds up, and it doesn’t scare him.
When he is with Addie, he feels alive, and it doesn’t hurt.
She leans back against him, as if he is the umbrella, and she the one in need of shelter. And Henry holds his breath, as if that will keep the sky aloft. As if that will keep the days from passing.
As if that will keep it all from falling down.
New York City
December 9, 2013
Bea always says returning to campus is like coming home.
But it doesn’t feel that way to Henry. Then again, he never felt at home at home, only a vague sense of dread, the eggshell-laden walk of someone constantly in danger of disappointing. And that’s pretty much what he feels now, so maybe she’s right, after all.
“Mr. Strauss,” says the dean, reaching across the desk. “I’m so glad you could make it.”
They shake hands, and Henry lowers himself into the office chair. The same chair he sat in three years ago when Dean Melrose threatened to fail him if he didn’t have the sense to leave. And now—
You want to be enough.
“Sorry it took me so long,” he says, but the dean waves away the apology.
“You’re a busy man, I’m sure.”
“Right,” says Henry, shifting in his seat. His suit chafes; too many months spent among mothballs in the back of the closet. He doesn’t know what to do with his hands.
“So,” he says awkwardly, “you said there was a position open, in the theology school, but you didn’t say if it was adjunct or an aide.”
Henry stares at the salt-and-pepper man across the table, and has to resist the urge to laugh in his face. A tenure track isn’t just coveted, it’s cutthroat. People spend years vying for those positions.
“And you thought of me.”
“The moment I saw you in that café,” says the dean with a fundraising smile.
You want to be whatever they want.
The dean sits forward in his chair. “The question, Mr. Strauss, is simple. What do you want for yourself?”
The words echo through his head, a terrible, reverberating symmetry.
It’s the same question Melrose asked that autumn day when he called Henry into his office, three years into his PhD, and told him it was over. On some level, Henry knew it was coming. He’d already transferred from the theological seminary into the broader religious studies program, focus sliding over and between themes that a hundred people had already explored, unable to find new ground, unable to believe.
“What do you want for yourself?” he’d asked, and Henry considered saying my parents’ pride, but that didn’t seem like a good answer, so he’d said the next truest thing—that he honestly wasn’t sure. That he’d blinked and somehow years had gone by, and everyone else had carved their trenches, paved their paths, and he was still standing in a field, uncertain where to dig.
The dean had listened, and leaned his elbows on the table and told him that he was good.
But good wasn’t enough.
Which meant, of course, he wasn’t enough.
“What do you want for yourself?” the dean asks now. And Henry still doesn’t have any other answer.
“I don’t know.”
And this is the part where the dean shakes his head, where he realizes that Henry Strauss is still as lost as ever. Only he doesn’t, of course. He smiles and says, “That’s okay. It’s good to be open. But you do want to come back, don’t you?”
Henry is silent. He sits with the question.
He always liked learning. Loved it, really. If he could have spent his whole life sitting in a lecture hall, taking notes, could have drifted from department to department, haunting different studies, soaking up language and history and art, maybe he would have felt full, happy.
That’s how he spent the first two years.
And those first two years, he was happy. He had Bea, and Robbie, and all he had to do was learn. Build a foundation. It was the house, the one that he was supposed to build on top of that smooth surface, that was the problem.
It was just so … permanent.
Choosing a class became choosing a discipline, and choosing a discipline became choosing a career, and choosing a career became choosing a life, and how was anyone supposed to do that, when you only had one?
But teaching, teaching might be a way to have what he wanted.
Teaching is an extension of learning, a way to be a perpetual student.
And yet. “I’m not qualified, sir.”
“You’re an unconventional choice,” the dean admits, “but that doesn’t mean you’re the wrong one.”
Except in this case, that’s exactly what it means.
“I don’t have my doctorate.”
The frost spreads into a sheen of ice across the dean’s vision. “You have a fresh perspective.”
“Aren’t there requirements?”
“There are, but there’s a measure of latitude, to account for different backgrounds.”
“I don’t believe in God.”
The words tumble out like stones, landing heavy on the desk between them.
And Henry realizes, now that they’re out, that they aren’t entirely true. He doesn’t know what he believes, hasn’t for a long time, but it’s hard to entirely discount the presence of a higher power when he recently sold his soul to a lower one.
Henry realizes the room is still quiet.
The dean looks at him for a long moment, and he thinks he’s done it, he’s broken through.